The noble bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, in fact) harkens back to ancient Greece, when kings were crowned with wreaths of bay and Olympic champions were awarded bay garlands. No less renowned today, bay laurel has been named The International Herb Association’s Herb of the year for 2009.
An evergreen relative of camphor and sassafras, the tree is native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean area but is now cultivated in many other regions.
With a smooth, olive-green or reddish bark, it grows to a height of about 25 feet in Britain (where it’s also known as sweet bay and laurel) and in warmer climates to as much as 60 feet. The leaves are alternate, elliptical, dark green and shiny, with short, 3- to 4-inch stalks. Clusters of small yellow flowers bloom in the spring and are followed by shiny purple/black berries.
Cooking with Bay
Despite its historical significance as a medicinal and celebratory plant, bay is now renowned mostly for its contributions in the kitchen. It’s a key ingredient in French and Mediterranean dishes, including pâté, bouillabaisse, and bouillon and -- along with other seasonings like parsley and thyme -- in bouquet garni. You’ll also find it in Spanish and Creole cooking, where it flavors shellfish, pickling brines, marinades, sauces, and many fish dishes. In American kitchens, bay is found in hearty everyday tomato sauces, gravies, soups and chilies. Try it in any grain, meat, or bean dish, too.
Bay’s sweet, balsamic scent is quickly apparent, but it takes a while for its flavor to permeate foods, so add it to dishes—like hearty soups, gravies and stews, stewed chicken, pot roast or poached fish—early on. Use just one or two leaves for most dishes of six servings. Be sure to remove the whole leaves before serving, because they’re bitter and sharp and can be dangerous if accidentally swallowed. (No, they’re not poisonous, though some people have an allergic reaction to the essential oil.)
Enjoy this culinary herb in Make Ahead Bean Bay Stew and or one of these natural recipes using bay.
- The word “baccalaureate” means laurel berry, an honorarium given to ancient scholars upon completion of their studies. It follows that “to rest on one’s laurels” means to be satisfied with past achievements rather than continue to strive for excellence.
- “Poet laureate” comes from the reference to Apollo, patron of the fine arts who had a special affinity for the laurel tree. (Apollo wore a wreath of bay leaves on his head in remembrance of his beloved Daphne, whom the gods turned into a bay laurel tree.)
- While today we use bay leaves to protect stored grains and clothing from insects, bay has historically been used as protection from witches, lightning, the devil, and the plague.
- Bay was used at divination rights at the Oracle at Delphi, where it was burned as incense.
Other uses for bay:
- Because it’s so strongly aromatic, bay laurel is resistant to many kinds of plant pests and diseases. Plants that grow nearby the bay laurel are said to benefit from this ability. In the home, bay is used to repel grain beetles and other insects. Place a leaf or two in each container of stored grains or in each box of stored clothing.
- Bay leaves are often added to potpourris for a sweet scent and visual appeal.
- Its scent—which comes from the essential oils eugenol, cineol, and geraniol — is employed in perfumes, soaps, and candles.
- Bay leaves are still used to make wreaths.
- The aromatic wood of the bay plant is used in marquetry (an inlaid woodwork) and to make walking sticks.
- An infusion of bay leaves is used as a hair rinse, especially for those with dandruff.
- Bay essential oil has been used to make salves for aching joints, and a paste of leaves or berries has been topically applied to soothe cold symptoms.
Ask The Experts
My bay leaves have turned grey. Are they still good?
No, it’s time to replace them. If your bay leaves are grey, it’s because they’ve lost their chlorophyll during storage. Store your new bay leaves in a dry, cool place out of sunlight. (A dark jar or a jar placed in a cupboard is perfect.)
What should I know about purchasing bay for cooking?
The most important thing to know is that you want authentic sweet bay or laurel leaf, Laurus nobilis. Some spice companies sell a substitute plant, California bay (Umbellularia californica), as bay leaf. But this plant is inferior as a culinary spice.
In fact, California bay has not been given GRAS status (generally recognized as safe for human consumption) by the Food and Drug Administration, and it’s not listed in the Code of Federal Regulations as a spice. One of the main constituents of California bay, umbellulone, is considered a central nervous system toxin when eaten. And when inhaled, it may cause headache, sinus irritation and sneezing. The California bay -- which is longer and darker green than sweet bay -- also has a harsher, more camphorous taste.
So it’s worth making sure that the bay you purchase is authentic.