A bay leaf is a fragrant leaf from a laurel tree that is used as an herb. Bay leaves can be used fresh or dried; dried bay leaves tend to have a slightly stronger flavor.
Identifying the Bay Leaf
Fresh bay leaves are a shiny dark green on their tops with a duller, lighter green underside. When they're dried, they look pretty much the same on both sides. Bay leaves come from the bay laurel plant. Bay laurel is an evergreen shrub or plant, that grows slowly and in warm climates.
The bay laurel plants can be grown for ornamental uses and the leaves can then be dried and used in cooking.
Cooking with Bay Leaves
Bay leaves can be used in many types of cuisines. Most often, recipes call for dried bay leaves. While the flavor results of fresh vs. dried bay leaves are not that different, fresh bay leaves are often much more expensive and do not last as long as dried bay leaves.
Bay leaves are not generally eaten but are rather simmered in a sauce or included in a braising liquid, and then removed before serving. A bay leaf is sometimes ground into a powder and used almost like a spice.
In addition to simmering them in soups and stews, bay leaves are great for stuffing into the cavity of a chicken before roasting it, and they can be added to the liquid for cooking rice.
Bay Leaf Safety
There's a misconception that bay leaves are poisonous, but be assured that the practice of cooking with poisonous ingredients is very much frowned upon in the culinary arts.
There do happen to be a couple of species of bay leaf that are poisonous, specifically the cherry laurel and mountain laurel, but these varieties aren't sold as herbs.
The reason bay leaves are removed before serving has to do with the fact that the leaves have sharp points and can stab you in the mouth if you bite down on them the wrong way.
Storing and Buying Bay Leaves
Fresh bay leaves can be stored in a sealed ziptop bag and stored in the refrigerator. They can last for a week or two this way. Dried bay leaves can be stored in a cool, dry, and dark spice cabinet in a sealed container. Another option is to store the sealed, dried bay leaves in the freezer. This helps the bay leaf retain its flavor and floral potency.
Bay leaves can be purchased in most major grocery stores. Fresh bay leaves may be more difficult to find, but they are usually grouped with the fresh herbs in the produce aisle. Dried bay leaves come in a spice jar and can be found in the spice aisle of your grocery store.
While bay leaves do not bring overwhelming and distinct flavors to any dish, they can be thought of as a "supporting actor," in that they help coax out other flavors and spices in whatever dish you are making.