Dry Bay Leaf

Bay Leaves- Herb or spice?

What is a Bay Leaf?

Bay Leaves. Is it a herb or a spice? The Bay leaf is an aromatic leaf commonly used in cooking. It can be used whole, or as dried and ground.There are a variety of health benefits and uses of bay leaves, making them a popular herb and spice for cooking.

Bay Leaf
Bay Leaves

What are the different types of Bay leaves?

The Bay leaf tree is an evergreen tree that grows up to a height of 12m. The growth rate is very slow.

Fresh bay leaves are shiny dark green on their tops with a duller, lighter green underside.

Fresh Bay Leaf
Fresh Bay Leaves

Shiny and dark green when fresh, bay leaves turn more of an olive color when dried.

Dry Bay Leaf
Dry Bay Leaves

The Bay leaves we use for culinary purposes are the whole dried and the powdered versions mostly. Bay leaves are used in cooking both as a herb and as a spice.Culinary bay leaves are oval and about 3 inches long. They’re deeply veined and have smooth but wavy edges.

Depending on the region, they are harvested from, they are classified into different types :

  • Mediterranean Bay Leaf : Although a native of Asia Minor, the Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae) tree can be found in the Mediterranean owing to its partiality for warm climates.A mature bay leaf is approximately 5cm wide and 10 cm in length. Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in cooking for their distinctive flavor and fragrance.The leaves are often used to flavor soups, stews, braises and pâtés in many countries
  • California Bay leaf :The leaf of the California Bay tree (Umbellularia californica, Lauraceae), also known as California laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood, is similar to the Mediterranean bay laurel, but has a stronger flavor. Excellent in chowders, tomato based dishes, stews and pickling.
  • Indian Bay leaf or Malabathrum (Cinnamomum tamala, Lauraceae) They are often labeled as “Indian bay leaves,” or just “bay leaf”, causing confusion with the leaf from the bay laurel, of Mediterranean origin . The appearance and aroma of the two are quite different. Bay laurel leaves(Mediterranean Bay Leaf) are shorter and light- to medium-green in color, with one large vein down the length of the leaf, while tejpat (Indian Bay Leaf) leaves are about twice as long and wider, usually olive green in color, with three veins down the length of the leaf. They impart a strong Cinnamon cassia like aroma to dishes, while the bay laurel leaf’s aroma is more reminiscent of pine and lemon.In northern India, the leaves are used to perfume spice mixes like garam masala, kormas, and Kashmiri curries. In the South of India, they are used in rice dishes like biryani ,curries, soups, vegetable dishes and in making tea.
  • Indonesian Bay leaf or Indonesian laurel (salam leaf, Syzygium polyanthum, Myrtaceae) is not commonly found outside Indonesia. This herb is applied to meat and, less often, to vegetables.
  • West Indian Bay leaf, the leaf of the West Indian Bay tree (Pimenta racemosa, Myrtaceae), is used culinarily and to produce the cologne called bay rum.
  • Mexican Bay leaf (Litsea glaucescens, Lauraceae) :The leaves are long and tapering with slightly fluted edges.They are mostly used in Mexican cooking and have a mellow flavor.

NOTE : Bay laurel leaves look similar to the leaves of the evergreen shrub known as English or Cherry laurel and Mountain laurel. It is important to remember, that these plants are very different and are toxic if consumed. However, rest assured these varieties aren’t sold as herbs.

What does Bay Leaf taste like?

  • If eaten whole, the Mediterranean Bay leaves are pungent and have a sharp, bitter taste. But when you add them to a slow-cooking recipe, such as a soup or stew, they impart a rich, herbal, woodsy flavor and aroma to your dish.
  • The Indian Bay leaf has a bold, vibrant flavor with a hint of camphor and eucalyptus when added to dishes.
  • Even after cooking for hours, the Bay leaf remains very rigid and stiff. Swallowing a large piece could cause you to scratch your digestive tract or potentially (although rare) pose a choking hazard because of the sharp leaf edges.Ideally it is best to remove the leaves before serving or eating & set them aside , as they would have already imparted their flavor when the dish was being cooked.

Bay leaves are most commonly used in cooking both as a herb and a spice.

  • soups
  • stews
  • stuffings
  • festive rice
  • meaty curries
  • Fish preparations
  • Pickling
  • Marinating

What is the flavor of Bay leaves?

Just like with many other spices used to flavor a dish, the fragrance of the Bay leaf is more noticeable than its taste. When dried, the fragrance is herbal, slightly floral, and somewhat similar to oregano and thyme.

Bay leaves are known for their subtle aroma and flavor, which comes from their essential oils. Myrcene, which is a component of many essential oils used in perfumery, can be extracted from the bay leaf. They also contain eugenol.The leaves become more flavorful as they age, and that flavor is extracted with steam and heat.

How to cook with Bay leaf?

Is Bay Leaf a herb or a spice?

Bay leaves are not generally eaten but are rather simmered in a sauce or included in a braising liquid, and then removed before serving.In that case, it serves more as a herb.When the bay leaves are ground into a powder, then it is used as a spice.

If using whole Bay leaves in cooking, tossing a few leaves into the braising liquid, be it soup, stew, curries or rice dishes will do. This would flavor the dish and the leaves can be removed before serving.

Powdered or ground Bay leaves impart more fragrance than the whole leaf itself, yet are difficult to remove when mixed in a dish. Hence, using a tea infuser or a muslin bag to hold the ground bay leaf in will impart the necessary flavor without overpowering in a dish.

The nutritional value of a dish is not changed by the addition of a single Bay leaf. However, in a powdered form a single teaspoon supposedly provides carbohydrates and significant micronutrients like vitamins A, B6 and C, along with manganese iron and calcium.

How is Bay leaf used in cooking in different cultures?

  • In Indian cooking the Indian Bay Leaf ( tejpat) is used to flavor rice dishes like Biryani, meaty curries, vegetarian dishes and fish both as a herb and a spice.It is also used as an ingredient in spice mixed like garam masala.
  • In the Philippines, dried bay laurel leaves are used in several Filipino dishes such as menudobeef pares, and adobo.
  • Bay leaves were used for flavoring by the ancient Greeks. 
  • They are a fixture in the cooking of many European cuisines (particularly those of the Mediterranean), as well as in the Americas. They are used in soups, stews, meat, seafood, vegetable dishes, and sauces.
  • The leaves also flavor many classic French dishes. The leaves are most often used whole (sometimes in a bouquet garni) and removed before serving
  • Thai and Laotian cuisine employs bay leaf in a few Arab-influenced dishes, notably massaman curry.
  • Bay leaves are also used in the making of jerk chicken in the Caribbean Islands. The bay leaves are soaked and placed on the cool side of the grill. Pimento sticks are placed on top of the leaves and the chicken is placed on top and smoked.

Health Benefits of Bay leaves

  • Burning 2-3 Bay leaves and inhaling the vapor is supposed to relieve one of anxiety and fatigue.
  • Help in dislodging mucus and phlegm from the respiratory tract by acting as respiratory stimulants.Placing a cloth soaked in water in which bay leaves have been boiled provides relief from cough, cold, bronchitis and chest infections.
  • Helps cure dry scalp when mixed with other oils to massage scalp before a shower.
  • Bay leaves infusion promotes sweating, breaking fever, and flu symptoms.
  • Promotes secretion of digestive juices thus aiding in better digestion.
  • Supposedly helps eliminate bad cholesterol, due to the Caffeic acid present in the Bay leaf.
  • Has pain relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, hence Bay leaf essential oil is widely used in traditional medicine for curing insect bites and joint aches.They are also being used in skin creams for the same reason.
  • Supposedly cures urinary infections when mixed with milk in a powdered form and consumed.

Bay leaves are also good as moth repellents hence sometimes they are scattered around the pantry to keep away.

Bay leaf substitutes

If you are running out of bay leaves and the recipe you are cooking calls for it, don’t fret it. Just substitute a teaspoon of thyme or a teaspoon of oregano per leaf. This should take care of the herbal, floral flavor . 

Storing and Buying Bay Leaves

Fresh Bay leaves are going to give you more of a flavor boost, but they’ll only last about a week if you store them properly (in a sealed ziplock bag in the refrigerator). 

Dried Bay leaves, however, will stay good for several years if you keep them tightly sealed in a cool, dark place in an air tight 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.

Fun Facts -Did you know?

The leaf of the Bay laurel, a native shrub of the lands surrounding the northern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, has a mythic history. Ancient mythology recounts that Apollo pursued the uninterested nymph Daphne. Apollo stalked Daphne until the gods granted her protection by turning her into a bay tree. Apollo who was heartbroken always wore a crown of bay leaves, so a piece of Daphne will always be with him.

Bay Leaves- Herb or spice? Share on X

In time, wearing Bay leaf crowns became of symbol of victory .In ancient Greece and Rome, winners in competitions and battles or leaders would adorn a crown of bay leaves on their head.

The term ‘Baccalaureate’ originates from this giving of bay leaf crowns to signify success, as does the term “poet laureate”.Bay leaves were also hung in garlands at special festivals.

In the Greek language, the herb is still called “dafni.” At the Temple of Delphi, which is dedicated to Apollo, the priestesses would eat bay leaves before divining the future. Because bay leaves are mildly narcotic, this may have helped induce the trance state.

Even the roof of the temple was thatched bay leaves.This roofing not only served as a sunscreen, but protection from lightning, disease, and evil spirits.

In ancient times, it was also believed that bay leaves can repel demons, witches, winds, thunder and lightning. It is said that on stormy nights, the emperor Tiberius used to hide under his bed wearing a garland made of bay leaves.

Romans considered the bay tree the best protection from thunderstorms.

In conclusion, the humble Bay leaf is not one to steal the spotlight, yet would provide the supporting actor role by infusing its subtle flavors to a dish.

I hope this post on Bay leaf, its many uses and health benefits was informative and you continue to use them in your cooking, now that you know a little more about where & how to use it.

Please share in the comments below on how you have used them in your dishes ? Have you used Bay leaves as a herb or a spice ?What worked best for you? Would love to hear it!

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