We are looking at the top 10 herbs and spices that every cook should have on hand in their kitchen to make the most basic of dishes. Certainly this list is rudimentary and not meant to cover all ethnic bases. If we’re missing something or want to weigh in on this, please drop us a line. Next on our top 10 list of herbs and spices every cook should have on hand in his or her kitchen is the laurel of cooking: bay leaves.
The bay leaf, also known as bay laurel or laurel leaf (Laurus nobilis), comes from an evergreen tree originating in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Fresh bay leaves are dark green, shiny, oval shaped and about two to four inches long. The top is darker than the underside, which tends to a lighter green hue. Left to grow naturally, bay laurel trees can reach heights of 60 feet or more. But cultivated for use in our soups and stews, the plants are grown as shrubs for easier harvesting. Just as you should weigh your ingredients as opposed to measure them by volume, always check the Latin name of the bay laurel before going out and buying one for your herb garden. There are bay laurel plants that have nothing to do with herbs or cooking, so be forewarned.
Ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the laurel leaf had magical properties. Greek myth describes how the nymph Daphne was turned into a bay laurel tree to keep her safe from the randy advances of Apollo who, thereafter, considered the tree sacred. The Oracle at Delphi was also said to have chewed and smoked bay laurel leaves when seeking visions of the future, but don’t go filling your bong with bay leaves; they have no known psychoactive properties.
Bay leaves are also considered representations of honor and glory, hence their use as crowns for winning athletes, kings, heroes, scholars and other great men and women.
Bay leaves are typically sold dried because fresh leaves have a much stronger flavor that tends to be bitter. They are added whole to sauces, soups and stews to impart a faintly sweet, tea-like flavor and aroma when simmered for several hours. Immediately after being added to a soup or sauce, they will give off a somewhat pungent, eucalyptus-like aroma (hence their use in killing jars because the vapors released by fresh, crushed leaves kill insects slowly, making them easier to mount). This soon gives way to its subtler and more understated aromas.
Not one to be front and center, bay leaves perform as part of the backing herbal chorus of a dish as opposed to being the lead singer. Bay leaves’ main role is to add a complex, faintly floral, yet subtle, aroma to a soup or stew; flavor, not so much.
Where to buy
If kept in an airtight container away from light, dried bay leaves are good for two years or so. If they have turned from an olive green to crispy brown in color, they’re past their prime and should be tossed. California bay leaves (the most common and more flavorful variety) are available in the spice section of any grocery store. They grow in zones 8-10, so our dry, cold winters ensure you won’t see any fresh laurel bushes at the local garden center.
How to use
Toss two or three bay leaves in your favorite soup or stew and let simmer for a couple hours. Bay leaves are also part of that classic herbal duo known as a bouquet garni (sprigs of thyme and a couple bay leaves tied together for easy retrieval before serving). A bouquet garni can also include parsley, basil, rosemary, oregano and tarragon, among other herbs and it doesn’t have to be tied; the items can be put into a pouch made of cheesecloth.
Bay leaves are never left in whatever it is you’re cooking. The leaves are tough as leather, bitter when chewed and largely inedible (the rough edges of the leaves can actually cut your mouth).
You can also put a couple bay leaves into flour to keep bugs out (remember the killing jar use) and are a common ingredient in potpourris and sachets hung in your closet to keep moths at bay.
Who’s cooking with it
In addition to getting tossed into the brine for the corned beef and cabbage (which is served year round, as you would expect from any self-respecting Irish style pub), bay leaves are used to great effect in the Irish Beef Stew served at The Exchange Tavern in Broomfield. In addition to stellar fish and chips and corned beef and cabbage, The Exchange does a rich, hearty Irish Beef Stew that is perfect with a pint of local craft beer from their excellent tap selection.
Made with sirloin tips and Guinness Stout, this is one dish that, if you make it at home (it’s a perfect meal to do in a Crock Pot), will get better and better as the days go by and the flavors intensify and meld. Onions, celery, carrots, potatoes and peas all play together in a delicious beef stock base that is the perfect solution to a cold winter day.