Bay leaves are somewhat of an enigma. Many Americans know them as something that gets thrown in a vat of boiling stock, then taken out of the final product before eating. They must be important to be such a huge part of cuisine from all around the globe, but why?
The most common type of culinary bay leaf comes from the Laurus nobilis, which is an aromatic evergreen native to the Mediterranean region, although there are different types of bay leaves such as the California, Indonesian, West Indian and Mexican bay leaves, all with their own distinct nuances in taste.
Like other herbs and spices, bay leaf gets its flavor from its aromatic compounds. This typically means that when eaten dried or raw, these aromatic compounds will be sharp and bitter, and their perceived flavor comes more from their smell. The aromatic notes usually include coniferous trees, eucalyptus, clove, flowery and often pepper.
You should be able to pick up these smells when sniffing a bay leaf, and if you don’t, that likely means the bay leaf is too old and has lost its aromatic compounds overtime. This is where bay leaf gets some of its dubious reputation, especially in American cuisine where aromatics are not heavily used.
Bay leaves often sit in our cupboards only to be used with specific dishes, and if they sit for longer than six months, they will start to degrade in flavor. They can be kept up to a year with some remnant of flavor, but their flavor will fade even faster if not kept in an airtight container away from the light. Bay leaves and other herbs that are native to arid regions such as rosemary, thyme and oregano are among the best for dry storage. Herbs with a lot of water content like cilantro or parsley do not dry well and generally just smell like dried hay or grass.
The aromatic compounds in bay leaves are usually released using heat. You can try to taste test this by putting a bay leaf into a cold cup of water and a hot cup of water. Give them a sip after about 10 minutes and notice the aromatic, bitterness of the warm water. This will also help you become more attuned to the flavor of bay leaf so you pick up on its contribution to flavoring dishes. As an extra bonus, you can use this method to test if your bay leaves still have flavor if you’re hesitant to throw them out.
The mild, bitter flavor of bay leaf works wonders to enhance the flavor profile of a dish. Bay leaf changes during cooking. In the first few minutes of boiling, it will have a strong menthol and eucalyptus flavor as the chemical eugenol is released. After about an hour of simmering, the flavor will mellow, creating more of a tea-like aroma.
Although bay leaf is more popular in soups and stews in the United States, one of the ways to learn to appreciate its flavor is to use it when cooking rice. Rice makes a wonderful vehicle for aromatic compounds.
Make a simple yellow rice to notice the impact of the bay leaf. Start by sauteing a bit of onion and garlic in cooking oil then throw in a bay leaf and a cup of rice. After a few minutes, add a 1½ cups of stock or water with stock concentrate, and 1 or 2 teaspoons of turmeric.
Try making one without the bay leaf and one with and see if you can notice the way it changes the flavor profile of the dish. It isn’t always a necessity, but it’s a simple way to create lovely, dimensional flavor.
Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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