I always have bay leaves in my pantry which I automatically add to simmered sauces and soups as often as I add sugar to coffee. Then I remove the bay leaves before serving and don’t give them another thought.
But lately I’ve wondered what bay leaves impart to these dishes and to others? The flowery and spicy flavor lends itself to both savory and sweet dishes like seared pork chops, marinated goat cheese, risotto, pilafs, roasts and even rice pudding.
For centuries bay leaves have symbolized honor, celebration and triumph. In Greek and Roman times, Olympic victors were awarded with laurel crowns leading to the terminology poet laureate and baccalaureate.
There are two kinds of bay leaves available. Most cooks prefer the oval shaped Turkish bay leaves (bay laurel) to the thin, long California bay (Umbellularia californica), which is much more powerful and can add a medicinal taste.
Almost all recipes are written with the Turkish bay in mind, so any time you use California bay, cut the amount in half. If you have a bay leaf tree in your back yard, the fresh leaves are stronger than dried, so unlike other herbs, use a smaller amount of fresh bay leaves than you would dried.
As lovely as their deep, subtle flavor can be, resist the urge to add too many leaves to a dish because they will turn everything bitter. I use one bay leaf per quart of liquid. Bay leaves are a component in a bouquet garni along with thyme, peppercorns, and garlic bundled together in a sachet. Remember how many bay leaves you put in a dish — that’s how many you need to remove when the cooking is finished. Bay leaves will keep in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to six months. For optimum flavor, replace regularly.
Here are some unique ideas for using bay leaves:
• Thread bay leaves on skewers between seafood, vegetables, or meat.
• Lay a few bay leaves under what you are cooking on the grill for a delicate trace of flavor.
• When roasting a chicken, stuff bay leaves and lemon quarters into the cavity of the chicken before roasting.
For beans and rice, add a bay leaf to the cooking liquid.
• Add a bay leaf to a salad dressing. Remove after a day.
• Make a slits in baking potatoes and insert one bay leaf in each potato. Roast with a good sprinkle of olive oil, salt, and fresh herbs. Remove bay leaves before serving.
Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-author of “Mmmmiami: Tempting Tropical Tastes for Home Cooks Everywhere.”