WHAT IS IT?
Really, until I got my first batch from Spice Jungle, I had NO IDEA why I had been putting bay leaves into sauces, on my savory bacon, etc. for years. When I opened up that first container of Spice Jungle’s hand-selected beauties I was hit by this wonderful, rich, smell.
The flavor? It’s something more like the bassist in a jazz trio. Take the sound away, and you very clearly have lost something important in the music. Bay’s contributions are similarly subtle. Bay is a culinary rhythm section flavor player. It adds roundness and fullness to all kinds of soups and stews, marinades, and is used in more coarse to fine grinds in everything from bacon cures to Old Bay seasoning. The others may lead, but, without the bay, you’ll be saying: “This is missing something…”
If eaten whole fresh, bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are pungent and have a sharp, bitter taste, almost camphorous. (Do not eat them whole. Professional stunt foodies. Closed kitchen.).
While you’ll find fresh in some markets these days, Bay are one of the few leaves that are best used dried. It takes weeks of careful drying to lock in the essential oils and let them develop the character that is found in bay as a cooking product.
The leaf is 1.3% essential oils, 45% of which is eucalyptol, which is probably best described for anyone who likes the much more intense extract used in a Halls cough drop. The effect here is far more mild, but it is that aromatic/taste that is bay’s bottom line.
As with many spices and flavorings, the fragrance of the bay leaf is more noticeable than its taste at first blush, when you pull out freshly dried leaves The fragrance is herbal, slightly floral, and somewhat similar to thyme and oregano. When cooked, the leaves slowly release essential oils’ eucalyptol which warms up other herbs and spices in the dish.
Spice Jungle gets their hand-picked leaves from Turkey, which are variants of the Mediterranean tree. The Laurel Bay tree is native to Asia Minor and has been cultivated since recorded history. Today’s big contenders are:
- Mediterranean – The one you will taste here. Beautiful old-world round happiness;
- Californian – A bigger more peppery flavor for the California riff on bay. The leaves are thinner. Use them more sparingly, as they have more of the essential oils.
- Indian bay is different. A member of the cinnamon family, it has a fragrance and taste like cinnamon cousin cassia bark, but milder. If trying to emulate this flavor with one of the others, smaller leaves and a pinch of Saigon Cinnamon work just fine,.
- Indonesian is pretty much a domestic product, used mostly on meats.
- West Indian is used culinarily in a little of the more innovative jerk, lots of bean and legume dishes and a men’s cologne more popular in the late 19th to mid 20th century, Bay Rum.
- Mexican – More mellow than the Californian, it’s the exception to the eat-it-fresh rule. Used in pork for tacos it can bring badass bay bang to the Baja.
- Indian Biryani key ingredient
- Regional curry recipes
- Marinara/tomato based sauces in Italian cuisine
- Eastern European stews
- Adding depth to bean dishes in Brazil
A FEW IMPROVISATIONAL RIFFS:
- Pulse chop to a coarse grind with herbs and peppercorns as a bbq sauce flavor expander on ribs and chicken
- Add to a jerk marinade for depth of flavor
- Asian dishes with bay and galangal root (or powder) are the towering twins of OMG umami
- Boil water for an onion bread with bay leaf and let cool down to 48°c/120°F before mixing and pick up the accent of the bay.
- Throw into the boiling water of a steamer for steamed fish where the aromatic penetrates like no one’s business!
Trade routes carried the Mediterranean Laurel Bay tree to Ancient Greece and Rome, then, eventually, the New World. The tree thrives in Mediterranean climates and does not tolerate cold regions. Bay (laurel) wreaths were used to make braided wreaths for crowning champions of athletic contests and combat in ancient Greece. Bay leaves, fresh or dried, have an impressive toughness to them that was prized by the Greeks. The California and Mexican bay leaves were used medicinally by many native American groups.
Choking Hazard – Always, always count how many bay leaves you put into a dish like a soup or stew or marinara and make sure that you get all of them out when done cooking.
Bay leaves do not break down. They are an easy thing to choke on. I can attest to this as a restaurant gumbo one night almost killed me. Leaf got stuck in my windpipe and would not come out.
You don’t want to know how the doctor got it out, either. Just make sure that you keep count, and get them all into the trash when done with them.
If you are putting them in a rub, make sure that your grind is fine enough that they will go down easily. No big pieces.
- California laurel
- Oregon myrtle
- Cinnamon bush
- Headache tree
- Mountain laurel
- Balm of heaven
Get top quality from our friends at SpiceJungle.