What Do Bay Leaves Actually Do? 

The long awaited answer.  

Published Mar. 27, 2023.


I’m kidding! 

But we’ve all had that thought. You’re cooking, and into the simmering pot goes a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that and then a few whole leaves . . . which you can’t eat. So, what’s the point?

Despite what you may think (and by “you,” I meant me until recently), bay leaves do serve a purpose—albeit a subtle one. Consider them a supporting player, hanging out in the background, making the star look better.

Their importance varies depending on the situation. Read on to find out when it's okay to skip them, and when they really matter.

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What Are Bay Leaves Anyway? 

Not surprisingly, bay leaves are actual leaves from a tree. 

Specifically, Turkish bay leaves—the most common kind—are the foliage of the bay laurel, an evergreen tree that grows throughout the Mediterranean.

Their distant cousin, the California bay leaf, grows on an evergreen native to the coastal regions of California and Oregon. This bay leaf is less available in supermarkets and often sold fresh.

Turkish bay leaves are our preferred variety.

What Flavor Do Bay Leaves Add?

If you were to chew them on their own, you’d find that bay leaves can have a bitter, menthol-adjacent flavor. (If you’ve ever licked one straight out of the spaghetti sauce, you’ll recognize that flavor. Just me?)  

However, when they are long simmered in sauces or other liquidy dishes, bay leaves add mild, herbaceous, tea-like notes.

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Are Fresh Bay Leaves Better Than Dried?

More often than not, dried herbs tend to taste like duller versions of their fresh counterparts. That's because the aromatic molecules in most herbs are volatile.

But in herbs that grow in hot, arid environments—like bay leaves—the aromatic molecules are less volatile, retaining flavor even after drying. 

As long as you've stored them properly and they aren't too old, dried bay leaves are an excellent choice.

Furthermore, we don’t actually recommend switching out a dried Turkish bay leaf for the fresh California kind, since the latter is so much stronger that it could overpower the dish. 

When Does Adding a Bay Leaf Matter Most? 

Bay leaves work to add subtle herbal and clove-like flavors to a dish’s seasoning. We find the herb is most noticeable (and necessary) in recipes with fewer ingredients that aren't overly potent and won't overwhelm its taste.

Here are a few examples of recipes where we definitely recommend keeping the bay leaf. 

Plain Stocks and Broths

In long-simmered simple broths, bay leaves provide light, earthy notes that complement other base flavors such as onion or chicken.

Simple Soups

In soups where just one or two ingredients star, such as in our Classic Tomato Soup, a single bay leaf brings out the brightness of the tomato and the savory undertones of the chicken broth.

Straightforward Gravies

When we don’t want to overpower the mild flavor of roast turkey, we stick to salt, pepper, parsley, and bay leaves to season the gravy. 

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When Are Bay Leaves More Optional? 

On the other hand, sometimes an ingredient list will be chock-full of aromatics and seasonings. In these cases, if you don’t have bay leaves on hand, there is no need to run out and buy them.

Fo example, in recipes like our Best Beef Stew or Daube Provencal, a laundry list of potent add-ins (including anchovies and red wine) do the heavy lifting.

While we still prefer to include the herb, missing a bay leaf or two won’t make or break these dishes. 

So why add them in the first place? Even in busier applications, bay leaves add subtle complex layers to the undertones of a dish. While you may not be able to pinpoint their exact taste, bay leaves mesh with the other ingredients to enhance the overall effect.

To learn even more about bay leaves, read this article.


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