Bay Leaves 101

What's the difference between Turkish and California bay leaves? Are fresh better than dried? Where should you store them? A crash course on all things bay leaf.

Bay leaves are ubiquitous in spice cabinets, and countless dishes including soups, stocks, braises, sauces, and gravies call for them. But how much do you really know about them? Welcome to our crash course on bay leaves. 

Turkish vs. California Bay Leaves

When a recipe calls for bay leaves (including ours), generally they mean the Turkish kind. These fragrant leaves come from the bay, or laurel, tree that grows throughout the Mediterranean. They are the bay leaves that brands like McCormick and Spice Islands package by default.

The California bay leaf, meanwhile, comes from a shrubby evergreen that is a different species altogether from the laurel tree that produces Turkish bay leaves.

California bay leaves have a potent, eucalyptus-like flavor, whereas Turkish bay leaves have a tea-like, mildly menthol flavor profile.

(There are also other varieties of bay leaves beyond Turkish and California. Learn about Indian bay leaves, tej patta, here.)

Testing Turkish and California Bay Leaves in A Recipe

To get a closer read on what each of these different leaves bring to a dish, we made two béchamel sauces—one with Turkish bay leaves and one with California bay leaves. 

Tasters described the sauce made with the California bay leaf as "medicinal" and "potent," "like something you'd put in a cough drop." 

The sauce made with the Turkish bay leaf, on the other hand, was described as "mild, green, and slightly clove-like" and "far superior in nuance and flavor." 

Given how much more potent the California bay leaf is—and the difference in its flavor profile—we would advise against trying to substitute these for Turkish bay leaves. Instead, use them in applications that specifically call for the leaves. If you do make the swap, use less of the California kind. 

Fresh Bay Leaves vs. Dried

In the test kitchen, we use fresh herbs more often than dried—bay leaves being one of the exceptions. Like other herbs that grow in hot, arid climates (these include oregano and rosemary), the aromatic molecules in bay leaves aren’t as volatile as those in tender herbs like parsley and basil, and they retain significant flavor even after dehydration. As long as your dried bay leaves aren’t too old and are stored properly, they should bring plenty of punch to your cooking.

Furthermore, most fresh bay leaves are the California kind. Just as with the dried leaves, you have to be very careful with how much you use, and they’ll impart a different flavor profile than dried Turkish leaves. 

Can You Eat Bay Leaves?

Technically you can, but we don’t recommend it. Not only do they remain tough even after simmering, they have a pointy tip and sharp edges that could scrape the inside of your mouth. That’s why they’re almost always removed before serving.

Storing Bay Leaves

Not to get too personal, but how old are those bay leaves in your pantry? Like most dried herbs, their flavor dissipates over time. But is there anything you can do about that? 

We ran tests with a freshly opened package of bay leaves, with bay leaves that had been opened for three months and stored in their original jar (the jar was of course kept closed when not in use), and with bay leaves that had been sealed in a food storage bag and kept in the freezer for the three months. 

We simmered two bay leaves from each batch in 2 cups ofchicken broth and tasted them for potency. As expected, the broth made with the freshly opened bay leaves tasted remarkably more herbal than the broth simmered with the older leaves. 

But the frozen leaves were the real revelation: they put out great, assertive bay flavor and aroma that was nearly as strong as the leaves from the freshly opened jar.

So where should you store bay leaves? No doubt about it—the freezer.

Where to Buy Bay Leaves?

Dried bay leaves are typically available in the spice aisle of any grocery store. Fresh bay leaves have also become widely available in many supermarkets.

What do Bay Leaves Do?

Bay leaves add subtle complexity to many dishes and are more noticeable in recipes without strong seasoning. Read more about what bay leaves do here.

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