I’m pretty sure that if you cook you must use bay leaves, at least some of the time. And if I asked you why, you might reply, “Because my mother did.”
There is a reason your mother and probably your grandmother always had a jar of bay leaves in the pantry. Only one or two are needed to impart their flowery, spicy flavor to a variety of savory and sweet dishes including sauces, polenta, marinated goat cheese, risotto, pilafs, roasts and even crème brûlée.
The flavor of bay leaves may not be recognizable in a dish, since they only add a subtle background flavor similar to adding a few grinds of black pepper. Although bay leaves are used more often than any other herb, they are always removed from a dish before serving, so you might not even know they were used.
You may also be familiar with this ubiquitous aromatic leaf as a crucial ingredient of the classic bouquet garni used in so many soups and stews: a sachet of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf.
There are two main varieties: California and Turkish bay leaves, which come from two different varietals of trees. Turkish bay leaves have shorter, fatter leaves and a more subtle woodsy, minty flavor than California bay leaves, which are longer and thinner, and deeper green with a similar but more potent flavor.
I prefer Turkish bay leaves because of their understated flavor; I use half as much when using the California variety. Fresh bay leaves are often available in the herb section of grocery stores. Use fresh bay leaves carefully since their eucalyptus flavor can dominate a dish. Well-sealed, dried bay leaves will last about two years in your pantry or refrigerator, and when stored in the freezer they will last even longer.
Here are a few tips for using bay leaves:
• Tuck a few bay leaves around meat or fish before pouring on the oil and the rest of the ingredients in a marinade.
• For great Hasselback potatoes, cut each potato not quite through in a series of crosswise slices about ¼ inch apart so that they are still joined together at the bottom. Brush the potatoes with melted butter, insert a bay leaf in the center slit, sprinkle with salt and pepper and braise the potatoes in stock. The bay leaf flavors the potato while curling in the heat of the oven.
• Stuff some bay leaves into the cavity of a chicken before roasting for a nuanced flavor.
• Thread bay leaves on skewers, interposing them with seafood, vegetables and meats before grilling.