It sounds like the stuff of urban food myths, except the story’s true: Wife simmers a pot of spaghetti sauce with a dried bay leaf in it. She neglects to extract the brittle herb before dinner is served. Husband swallows the leaf and chokes on it, prompting a 911 call. (He survives; eventually, the marriage does not.)
“Gosh, it must have been 38 years ago, but it’s not something you forget!” says Connecticut resident Ellyn Broden, who was living in Laurel, Md., at the time and had to take care of her neighbors’ children when their mother (the cook) and father (bay leaf victim) were whisked to the emergency room.
Bay leaves do not typically incite drama. In fact, the dried kind are dull green and inspire no agreed-upon description. Ask a home cook, and he or she might say a bay leaf is added for flavor, or as an aromatic. Others say, sure, they toss a bay leaf in when a recipe calls for it, but they can’t tell you why. The leaves have been described as “earthy,” “floral,” “minty,” “like cinnamon spice,” “subtle” and “assertive.” How can that be?
In part, because there are bay leaves, and there are bay laurel leaves.
For the record, the latter do have something to offer, provided they aren’t years old. Spice giant McCormick & Co. continues its R&D on the same Laurus nobilis that was prized for its culinary and medicinal uses thousands of years before the company claimed it as one of its top 25 products. It tests them in mashed potatoes and chilis, glazes and simple syrups.
“Taste two plain tomato sauces side by side, one of them cooked with a bay leaf or two,” says Laurie Harrsen, McCormick’s director of consumer communications. “The difference it makes is amazing. It’s a ‘foundational’ flavor, a workhorse — not the star.”
There’s room in the kitchen to celebrate supporting players, surely. Still, the reviews are far from unanimous.
“I don’t use them. Never understood the magic,” says Kim O’Donnel. The Seattle food writer and former Washington Post blogger was taught in culinary school to use them in soups and sauces. A bay leaf is part of a classic bouquet garni. But it has been years since she was moved to do so.
“I didn’t notice any difference not having them in my food. I’d rather go with fresh thyme or oregano” for infusing, O’Donnel says. “Bay leaves have disappeared from my pantry.”
They may be receding from recommended use as well. Cookbook editor Paula Jacobson says they show up less frequently in the recipes she has tested in recent years, although she always keeps a jar of dried bay leaves on hand. When she spots one in an ingredient list, she says, she immediately scans the directions for the “discard” directive and inserts one if it isn’t there.
Serious Eats culinary director J. Kenji López-Alt appreciates bay leaf for its 50-plus flavor compounds and its “complex, tea-like aromas” after long cooking, he wrote in March in response to the site’s Food Lab query titled, “What’s the Point of Bay Leaves?” He emphasized that fresh and dried are not interchangeable, flavorwise. His advice: Stick with dried, and if you’re worried about forgetting to fish it out, use ground bay leaf instead.
The fresh bay leaves you find in cello-packs might have been grown in California, but they are bay laurel — not Umbellularia californica, which is sometimes called California bay and is not recommended for cooking.
Perhaps that’s why Julia Child was no fan of fresh bay leaves. As noted in “The Way to Cook” (1989), “California bay has, to me, a disagreeably strong and oily flavor.” One way to distinguish Umbelluaria californica from Laurus nobilis is the edges of their leaves; the former has a smooth edge, while the latter’s edge is wavy.
Then again, the flavor imparted by fresh bay leaves — the laurel kind — is most agreeable in the bay ice cream served seasonally at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
One of herb expert Susan Belsinger’s favorite uses for bay leaf is as an infusion in chocolate pudding. It proves the validity of Harrsen’s test of one-with, one-without: The background note of bay adds complexity and seems to enrich the chocolate flavor. It’s a nice recipe either way, but better with the bay leaf. Belsinger prefers cooking with fresh rather than dry leaves, and keeps them in an unsealed zip-top bag in the refrigerator for months.
Maple Ave sous-chef and Burma native Nyinyi Mint has been known to serve soup at the Vienna, Va., restaurant with a fresh bay leaf or two in it. He’ll “grind or smash them a bit,” he says, to release their aroma. He learned to cook with fresh bay leaves from India. “We used them a lot in Southeast Asian cooking — in marinades and curries.”
Everyday cooks don’t need to worry about stocking a variety of bay leaves. Just cook with what you have on hand: most probably Turkish/Mediterranean/Greek bay laurel, bought at the grocery store.
“I’m not a gourmet, and I don’t do a perfect quarter-inch dice,” says Arlington resident Sue O’Brian. “But I throw bay leaves into the Indian food I make, and people who eat it think it’s pretty good.” The AARP research editor says bay leaf “ups the notch a little bit. . . . It adds a more pungent, herbal taste. I would notice it if it weren’t there.”
Dried West Indian bay leaves (Cinnamomum tamala) are veined a bit differently from bay laurel leaves and are closer to that cinnamon profile, aromatically. That might be why O’Brian combines the leaves with coffee in a cheesecloth sachet and adds it to her short-rib braise.
Why fish out the dried bay, then? Because the leaves don’t really break down during cooking. When eaten, they tend to end up as shards that can puncture the inside of a mouth or lodge in the throat. And bring a family meal to an abrupt and painful conclusion.
Questions about bay leaf? Susan Belsinger will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.