Cooking With Bay Leaves: The Dos And Don’ts

Bay leaves infuse dishes with a woodsy flavor that also has subtle notes of eucalyptus and clove. Its flavor profile is bold but nuanced in a way that is difficult to replicate with any other herb or combination of herbs. Despite the fact that it is not as blatantly aggressive as some other seasonings, the bay leaf can make or destroy a dish depending on how well you use it. Follow these tips to use this herb effectively.

Table of Contents

Do use bay leaves as a background note.

The traditional use of bay leaves is in support of the other flavors in a dish, and this is certainly where it works best. Use it in dishes that also use more assertive seasonings like cumin or black pepper.

Do use dried bay leaves instead of fresh.

Like oregano, fresh bay leaves can be pungent to the point of ruining dishes. Instead of trying to add a tiny portion of a fresh leaf, use the dried version instead. It is much easier to find, and you can add a leaf or two to a dish without the risk of making a dish that is too bitter to eat.

Note that the bay leaves that are sold dried and the ones that are sold fresh are usually harvested from two different types of trees, which is another reason for the difference in flavor. Most recipes that require bay leaves are written with the dried version in mind.

Do simmer your bay leaves.

Little distinguishes a bay leaf that has not been cooked from any other leaf. It looks and smells like a generic dried leaf. That changes when you cook it in a liquid. Bay leaves are perfect for the latter part of the braising process. This is an herb that works best in dishes that are cooked for hours. A bay leaf or two can make a great addition to a soup or stew.

Do store your bay leaves in the freezer.

As a dried herb, bay leaves have a relatively long shelf life. They can last for months in an airtight container that is kept cool and away from light. You can extend that shelf life from months to years if you choose to freeze them instead.

Don’t serve a dish with bay leaves still in it.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t discard bay leaves because they are toxic. You do it because of how hard and fibrous they are. Bay leaves do not soften or break down, even after being cooked for a long time. They retain a texture similar to a fish bone. That texture makes this herb a choking hazard. If you cannot find the bay leaf in your dish, warn guests to look out for it.

Don’t overcook bay leaves.

Bay leaves are not one of those herbs where the flavor fades when cooked for a long time. Instead, what happens is that it will continue to infuse flavor into the dish and can make it bitter. To prevent this, taste your dish and remove the bay leaves once they have added your desired amount of flavor.

Don’t bother crushing or chopping bay leaves when adding them to a dish.

This does not affect the flavor they release or the rate at which they release their flavor.