Home Articles What Are Bay Leaves (+ How to Use Them)

What Are Bay Leaves (+ How to Use Them)

I’m sure you’ve seen them in soup recipes before. But what are bay leaves exactly?

If you’re curious about bay leaves, you’ve come to the right place. 

Fresh Green Bay Leaves Arranged on a Brown Wooden Bowl

These fragrant leaves are a flavor boost! They can do wonders for your cooking and offer a range of medicinal properties.

For centuries, bay leaves have been an essential ingredient for cultures around the world.

And yet, this peculiar item remains an enigma. 

Can you eat it? What does it taste like? Is it actually toxic?

From their origin to their uses, get ready to learn all about what bay leaves can do for you. 

What Are Bay Leaves?

Before you use bay leaves, you need to know the basics. So let’s get down to it. 

At its core, the bay leaf is a leaf from bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). 

Take a walk down the spice aisle and you’ll find these leaves on the shelf.

Dried as a whole leaf is the most common culinary form, but you can also find it ground.

These thick leaves are an herb that’s mostly used to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. 

When they’re not cooked, they have a very bitter flavor. So I don’t recommend biting in!

However, when you do cook them, they add a woodsy, herbal element to your dish.

They also have a distinctive aroma that comes from their oils. 

In addition to their culinary uses, bay leaves are used for their medicinal properties. 

They can boost the immune system, aid in digestion, and have antimicrobial properties.

They’re also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Vitamin A, iron, and magnesium are just a few reasons to use these leaves.

Dried Bay Leaves on a White Bowl

Bay Leaf Origins

Bay leaf, sweet bay, Apollo’s bay, true laurel, or bay laurel, this herb is known by many names. 

The bay laurel plant itself is from the family Lauraceae and is native to the Mediterranean.

It’s an evergreen shrub that can also grow quite tall to become a tree. 

Found throughout the world, this cultivar has been around since ancient times. 

Symbolizing honor, there are accounts of Greeks and Romans adorning them as wreaths.

They were also prized during the Middle Ages for their medicinal properties. 

Even words like baccalaureate and poet laureate were derived from bay leaves.  

The bay laurel tree isn’t the only species we get this herb from. Other varieties are cultivated around the world.

What you need to watch out for are the toxic varieties, such as mountain laurel and cherry laurel.

Luckily, you won’t find these in the grocery store.

Dried bay leaves on a ceramic boat shape bowl

Varieties of Bay Leaves 

So how many varieties of bay leaves exist? More than you think!

California and Turkish bay leaves are the two most common types you’ll stumble across in the culinary world.

Mexican, Indian, and Indonesian bay leaves are a few others. 

While they’re all part of the same plant family, they each have a distinct flavor. 

The Turkish bay leaf is the type you’ll encounter the most.

This is the variety that comes from the bay laurel tree I mentioned before.

It tastes like a cross between thyme, clove, and oregano.

The California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica), on the other hand, has a stronger taste and is more aromatic. 

The Indian bay leaf (Cinnamomum tamala) has a sort of cinnamon flavor whereas Mexican bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens) is subtle.

And the Indonesian bay leaf (Syzygium polyanthum) can also be a nice addition for its sweeter flavor.

So be sure to check the labels. Otherwise, you may get a more intense flavor than you bargained for.

Can You Eat Bay Leaves? 

Although we cook with them, can you actually eat bay leaves? This is a common question I hear all the time. 

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is you shouldn’t. 

Bay leaves are tough. They’re not easy to chew or digest for that matter. 

Even after cooking, they don’t soften up very much. So while you can eat bay leaves, I wouldn’t recommend it. 

They’re not pleasant to snack on and they can present choking hazards.

So it’s best to play it safe and remove the leaves from a dish before eating. 

Pork Adobo With Bay Leaves

How to Use Bay Leaves in Cooking

Now comes the fun part, how to cook with bay leaves! 

With their unmistakable aroma and distinct flavor, bay leaves are an excellent culinary herb. 

From Spanish to Filipino to Indian cuisines, you’ll find plenty of ways to incorporate them into your meals.

The thing to keep in mind is that they are difficult to chew.

So the leaves are usually added to a dish during cooking and then removed before serving.

As for their uses, they’re more versatile than you might think.

You can pickle the leaves, add them to a marinade, stuff them in fish, or use them to braise roast meats.

The best use, though, is to add them to a soup. One or two leaves are all it takes. 

Once the soup is ready, simply remove the leaves. 

You can also try them in stews and sauces for a flavorful addition.

I use them for my beef stew, minestrone, and Filipino recipes like chicken adobo.

As they slowly cook, their herbal flavor will enhance anything you add them to.

As for shelf-life, dried bay leaves will last for a couple of years.

Like all herbs and spices, they will lose their flavor over time, though. 

If you happen to be using fresh bay leaves, store them in the refrigerator.

You’ll also want to use them up within one week or two. 

Substitutes for Bay Leaves

Are you all out of bay leaves? No problem. 

There are a few substitutions you can use. 

Oregano and thyme are the top alternatives. They both have a distinct flavor that works great. 

Dried basil is also another solution. It’s a bit fresher in flavor, but it will certainly do in a pinch. 

Other herbs I recommend are rosemary and sage. 

What you want to remember is portions are key. So be sure to measure your heapings so you don’t overdo anything. 

What Are Bay Leaves

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Kim - InsanelyGood
Hey there! I'm Kim. I love running, cooking, and curling up with a good book! I share recipes for people who LOVE good food, but want to keep things simple :)

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