Search Google for “bay leaf conspiracy” and the results might shock you: article after article wondering if bay leaves are a true herb, or merely a far-reaching scheme by the culinary industry to get you to put useless leaves into your food.
One author, writing for The Awl, wonders:
“What does a bay leaf taste like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf smell like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf look like? A leaf.”
They’re crazy, right? Bay leaves are a unique and precious herb found in recipes from Mexico to Indonesia, it must taste like something, right?
But what? Can you say what a bay leaf tastes like?
Before we further dismantle everything you thought you knew, let’s dive into a little bay leaf background.
The most common type of bay leaves are the leaves of the bay laurel plant. (Yes, Caesar wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head. Coincidence? Or clue?) Bay leaf apologists claim these have a distinctively bitter flavour that diffuses into food cooked with the whole or ground leaf. Another common type is the Indian bay leaf, which is shorter and has a somewhat spicier flavour with notes of cinnamon – at least, that’s what people say.
Bay leaves were used both in food and medicine in mediaeval Europe, classical Greece, ancient India – even thousands of years ago in Egypt, where they were thought to be a cure for hangovers.
Bay leaves in food
The Egyptian bay leaf hangover cure, history would show, was bogus. But how far does bay leaf bogusity go? And what shady culinary agents have been forcing the bay leaf into our recipe books for thousands of years?
But what do they actually add to these dishes? Some say a somewhat floral, nutty spiciness. Others claim chefs, recipe book authors and other shadow culinary actors have merely duped us into spending a lot of money on the relatively costly herb. (One woman, while visiting the Philippines, purchased a puppy for the equivalent of two ounces of whole, dried bay leaves.)
Bay leaves come in two common forms: fresh and dried.
Like other dry herbs and spices, dry whole bay leaves will last quite a while when stored in a cool, dry place. Fresh bay leaves will stay fresh for a few weeks in the refrigerator and longer in the freezer.
Some chefs swear by fresh bay leaves over dried bay leaves, although Cooks Illustrated conducted a blind taste test of fresh and dried bay leaves simmered into a béchamel sauce and concluded that the flavours are basically the same. On the other hand, this food science writer for Serious Eats disagrees and claims that fresh is always better.
This is, of course, assuming bay leaves do anything at all and the whole bay leaf industry isn’t a vast conspiracy, so you should try for yourself to be sure.
Or better yet, grow them yourself
There is only one way to be sure your bay leaves haven’t been tampered with by untrustworthy chefs trying to pull the wool over your eyes: grow them yourself.
Laurel bay trees are hardy and not difficult to cultivate. They are trees (a laurel tree can grow as high as 60 feet) and take some time to grow, but you can harvest leaves from small trees grown in your backyard or even flower pots. Here is a video guide to drying harvested bay leaves.
There – now you have everything you need to discover the truth once and for all. Just be careful, because when it comes to busting food conspiracies sometimes it’s better to leaf well enough alone…