Bay leaf is a spice cabinet staple, even though the aromatic leaf is more herb than spice. I love opening a fresh bag of bay leaves and smelling the fantastic aroma that wafts from the bag.
Fresh herbs are always better than dried because the aromatics are lost in dried herbs, but bay leaves are one herb that is actually better dried than fresh. If used fresh, they will overpower a dish if left to cook too long, while dried leaf imparts flavor more proportionally and can be left in until you plate. Great bay leaf comes from Turkey and while there is a California Bay Laurel plant that is also a bay leaf, it’s flavor is decidedly more eucalyptus and cough medicine than any of the subtle flavors that come from simmering bay leaf in a dish. I have raided a California Bay Laurel bush for the leaves and was very disappointed in the results so to put it to rest, stick with the Mediterranean variety for culinary perfection, the California variety for a nice addition to your landscaping.
I buy almost all of my herbs and spices from Penzey’s. Their Turkish bay leaves are fantastic.
Here’s 3 things you have to know about bay leaf:
1) They lose their flavor if you keep them for more than a year. These are not an expensive herb, when you buy a bag write the date on it and when you get up to a year throw them out and buy new ones. Old bay leaf will have zero effect on your food, it’s like not using bay leaf at all so err on the side of caution and replace that bag of bay leaf you can’t recall buying.
2) Store them in the freezer. Even with adherence to the 1 year rule above, storing them in the freezer will ensure that the flavor is optimally maintained throughout their shelf life.
3) Don’t be afraid to use two in a recipe that calls for one. They say you can’t have too much of a good thing and I have never regretted using more bay leaf than called for in a recipe. However, 2 instead of 1 may be good but 3 instead of 1 will not always be great, so experiment to you tastes but be respectful of the power this herb can exhibit.