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The Great Bay Leaf Hoax

serious Dec 11, 2006 08:53 PM

Is there a second cook out there who feels that the bay leaf lobby
must be very strong? I cannot detect a flavor imparted by the addition
of one of these to anything.

  1. r
    ramehshu Sep 14, 2007 09:06 AM

    In soup it is very subtle and can be overpowered by other herbs. You can discover what bay tastes like by performing the following experiment: boil a small amount of rice with a fresh bay leaf or two and you will taste it. Don't eat the rice - because rice thus flavored is not intended as a recipe - but it will show you what bay leaf tastes like.
    However, I need help! How do I know if the potted bay tree that I have been using for 10 years is Umbellaria californica or Laurus nobilis? I bought it from Peconic River Herb Farm on Long Island as a "bay laurel" and always assumed it that I was plucking the same ancient and noble laurel leaves that the oracle of Delphi consumed, but I recently saw a picture of the California tree and it looks a lot like mine. Does anyone out there know how to tell the difference?

    1 Reply
    1. re: ramehshu
      DiveFan Sep 14, 2007 05:23 PM

      Curiousity got my cat :-).
      Link to Turkish bay laurel - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_laurel
      Link to California laurel - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Californ...
      The leaves of the Turkish bay are noticeably serrated and wrinkled at the edge.

    2. revsharkie Jun 16, 2007 12:16 PM

      I can detect the flavor, but I don't like it. So I don't use them.

      Mike came home from the Mexican butcher's one day with a tongue. He had asked the guy what to do with it, and he gave him a bag of red spice mix and this ENORMOUS bag of bay leaves--several lifetimes' supply in my kitchen.

      1. s
        serious Jan 16, 2007 09:38 AM

        Noticed that Penzeys has, I did not buy, powdered bay leaf.

        2 Replies
        1. re: serious
          fud Jun 14, 2007 03:30 PM

          Apparently the jury is still out on whether the california bay is edible or not. Some sites say it's toxic, others say it's commonly substituted, even by spice companies, although that is contrary to FDA rules, which defines bay leaf as the laurus nobilus or true bay leaf. Apparently the indians actually ate the nuts roasted, but you have to do it just right. The ability to taste the flavor depends some on the type and how old it is, but there is also a genetic difference in how well people can taste bitterness. I can taste it really well, enough to easily taste bay leaf, but also enough that I don't care for most beers and wines, or even many green vegetables, unfortunately.

          1. re: fud
            Sharuf Jun 16, 2007 06:56 AM

            If the California bay weren't edible, I'd be dead by now. I'd rather forage than get store-bought.

        2. m
          Miss Otis Dec 22, 2006 02:15 AM

          I have a Turkish/Greek/Mediterranean bay in a pot in the yard (in Berkeley, CA). When we got it, it was a stick. Now, 8 or 9 years along it's sort of Christmas tree shaped. I wanted a bay so I could have fresh bay leaves for a dish I read about somewhere 30+ years ago -- chunks of swordfish, tossed with salt, lemon and olive oil and threaded on skewers alternating with bay leaves all jammed together and touching. I use half a leaf between chunks which provides quite enough flavor and doesn't leave the tree bare. Grill over wood or charcoal. Don't eat the bay leaves -- taste them in the fish.

          Yes, I know that swordfish is not on the mercury-free and sustainably fished lists. Fortunately, it's pricy enough to be a self-regulating indulgence.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Miss Otis
            TongoRad Dec 22, 2006 12:13 PM

            We use the (almost) same exact preparation for chicken livers, the difference being that we brine them. So long as the bay leaves are touching the livers on the skewer they impart a wonderful quality to the final dish.

          2. MSK Dec 19, 2006 10:20 PM

            I took a cooking class once that told us you needed to crumple each leaf a bit (just a little........not to the point of making it a bunch of crushed leaf pieces) to release the oils before adding it to any recipe.
            Is this accurate? Could this make the difference?

            2 Replies
            1. re: MSK
              Das Ubergeek Dec 21, 2006 02:46 PM

              Depends how dry they are. If they're really, really dry you'll just crack them and have pains fishing out shards.

              1. re: MSK
                Hungry Celeste Dec 21, 2006 03:55 PM

                I use fresh-off-the-tree bay leaves, and I do crumple/bruise each leaf before adding to a dish. These leaves are pliable, though, so they don't break apart.

              2. l
                lemon Dec 13, 2006 06:39 AM

                Completely agree with serious and ricepad that whatever the Emporer is wearing, it's no bay leaf. But it still seems like asking for some kind of cosmic trouble to make soup without throwing one in -- what's up with THAT?

                1. chef chicklet Dec 12, 2006 05:38 PM

                  I find that Bay leaves can turn taste bitter, I remove them after about an hour if cooking with it. If the taste is too pronounced, I am not a huge fan at all. There are so many other good fresh and dry herbs to use. I'd rather use Herbes de Provence or sage.

                  To RiJaAr, you could tie them into a a bag with other herbs so they don't get lost in the dish and then fish the entire bag out when done.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: chef chicklet
                    chef chicklet Dec 13, 2006 05:55 PM

                    I made a great navy bean soup yesterday without the bay leaf. I used the above mentioned dry herbs instead. It turned out terrific and the Bay leaf was not event missed.

                    For my tastes, I'm okay with it in marinara sauces, I think perhaps the red wine might change it a bit to where the bitterness is wiped out. Maybe it is the California bay leaf that is turning me off. I'll try to find another source.

                  2. r
                    RiJaAr Dec 12, 2006 04:06 PM

                    i almost always throw a bay leaf or two in when i'm making soups ans such, it adds a little something, not a distict taste, but without one the dish just seems unfinished.

                    btw, i got given a jar of bay leaves that were crushed.. not finely, but fairly small.. where are you supposed to use those? they're definately not edible, they're still hard and woody, but they're small enough that you can't fish them out of the soup like a regular whole leaf...???

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: RiJaAr
                      serious Dec 12, 2006 05:40 PM

                      You might use those 'pieces' in bouquet garni..

                      1. re: RiJaAr
                        niki rothman Dec 12, 2006 08:44 PM

                        You can always use a metal tea ball that just about everybody has in the kitchen gadget drawer for steeping loose tea leaves - to put very small spices like pickling spices and the leafy bits you describe. Then just neatly fish it out at the end of cooking.

                        1. re: RiJaAr
                          DanaB Dec 12, 2006 09:08 PM

                          I have a Greek recipe for fava bean puree that calls for a broken up bay leaf, and after being simmered with the beans, the bay leaf gets pulverized when the dish is pureed. The bay leaf *makes* the dish and the final product definitely does not end up with distinct bits of bayleaf in it.

                          1. re: RiJaAr
                            cgfan Dec 14, 2006 01:12 AM

                            You'd want to be careful with these... According to one reference that I recently read while browsing a Sur La Table store, bay leaves are sharp enough that they can cut internal organs. In other words make sure that you can fish them out later, no problem when they're whole.

                            1. re: cgfan
                              MVNYC Dec 14, 2006 05:32 PM

                              As long as you pulverize them in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder or as in the recipe above in a blender you will be fine. Being Greek I have been eating bay leaves this way my whole life and have never encountered the problem.

                              As to the whole question, yes bay leaves have taste and they definitely have an effect on the final product. I put bay leaves in all of my European soups/stews and some marinades i do. When the bay leaves are left out people can taste a difference though they usually cant quite put their finger on it. Bay leaves provide an background note to whatever they are in. Like someone else said, they are not meant to be tasted directly. In america people really enjoy bold flavours and being able to taste all of the ingredients but this is not the bay leaf's purpose. I find the bay leaf enlivens the whole dish.

                              Make sure you use Turkish bay leaves. i order mine in small quantities and use them fairly quickly from penzeys.

                          2. a
                            annimal Dec 12, 2006 03:50 PM

                            now that i have new bay leaves from the spice house i'm going to try them in more dishes... i like the idea of cooking them in rice.

                            on the topic of not everyone tasting everything equally, there's also a taste receptor for cilantro which is apparently genetic. i'm sure we all know someone who hates cilantro and think it tastes like soap; that's what causes it.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: annimal
                              dbird Dec 12, 2006 05:56 PM

                              I thought I was the only one who thought cilantro tasted like soap. I used to hate it but now I can enjoy it in certain limited contexts, and it doesn't taste like soap any more.

                              1. re: annimal
                                amymsmom Sep 14, 2007 09:14 AM

                                I hated it as a kid. Now I love it. Same with papaya.

                                I know my taste buds have changed. Flavors are weaker now that I'm older.

                              2. rdesmond Dec 12, 2006 03:02 PM

                                I can detect whether a bay leaf is in a stew-type dish by smelling it when I enter someone's home. It is subjective. Some people's pee doesn't stink after they eat asparagus!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: rdesmond
                                  Hungry Celeste Dec 19, 2006 06:55 PM

                                  I read somewhere--can't remember where, don't know if it is true--that EVERYONE's pee smells after asparagus, we just differ in our ability to smell the resulting compound?

                                2. p
                                  Pumpkinseed Dec 12, 2006 02:45 PM

                                  I always used to wonder about bay leaves in the same way. Whenever a recipe called for a bay leaf, I obediently tossed one in, but I never understood what the point was. It might as well have been cardboard.

                                  Then, the first time I ordered bay leaves from Penzey's, I opened the bag and took a sniff and suddenly I realized why people use bay leaves. It was like an epiphany.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Pumpkinseed
                                    TongoRad Dec 12, 2006 02:51 PM

                                    I had the same experience when I started to buy my bay leaves at the local Indian market. An epiphany is right! Now I tend to refresh my supply once a year, even if I haven't gone through them all.

                                    1. re: TongoRad
                                      Chuckles the Clone Dec 13, 2006 09:01 AM

                                      Third. It wasn't Penzeys but the first time I bought some kind that weren't the jar
                                      of McCormicks that had been on my spice shelf since forever it was like night
                                      turned into a laurel-scented day. If you can't taste them it's probably them not you.
                                      Go find some new, different ones.

                                  2. b
                                    baltodog Dec 12, 2006 01:08 PM

                                    Good grief, from this post, I guess I'm one of the people who can't taste or smell truffles; could never see what my wife liked about them. However, I like bay leaf in stews, some soups, and I find they add a distinctively sweet flavor to saurkraut.

                                    1. d
                                      dbird Dec 12, 2006 02:30 AM

                                      Very strange. I was taught at culinary school to use only a piece of a bay leaf to a large portion stock or whatever, and have found that a very good rule of thumb. I find the flavor to be very pronounced. Just checked and I have Penzey's Turkish in my cupboard.

                                      1. Food4Thought Dec 12, 2006 02:19 AM

                                        I'm with JK Grence with regards to the harp in the orchestra, as it is usually a component. I also kinda liken it to fish sauce in asian recipes, you might not be able to put your finger on it, but you would notice if it were missing.

                                        1. steinpilz Dec 12, 2006 01:42 AM

                                          There definitely is a taste or scent contributed by bay leaves, I think of it as lemony but right now I can't decide if it is a flavour of aroma (as I'm not cooking). Just make the mistake of adding too many and you will recognise it.

                                          1. hotoynoodle Dec 12, 2006 12:21 AM

                                            definitely fry it in fat first, rather than just tossing it in the pot with the liquids. dried herbs and spices always benefit from a quick sizzle. it also isn't supposed to have a distinct flavor -- it's part of the layering of flavors in a dish.

                                            1. JK Grence the Cosmic Jester Dec 11, 2006 11:52 PM

                                              Like many have said, freshness of the bay leaves will have a big part in if you can taste it. Most herbs (including bay leaves) have an optimal shelf life of around a year; some say it's only six months, but if you go that way you end up throwing out a bunch and then replacing them with the same year's harvest. Find yourself some good fresh bay leaves (Penzey's is perfect for this if you have one nearby) and give 'em a whiff.

                                              Bay leaves, to me, are the culinary equivalent of the harp in an orchestra. You don't really notice it when it's there, but if it's missing from something that normally has it you can tell there's *something* missing even if you can't quite put your finger on it.

                                              1. whs Dec 11, 2006 11:50 PM

                                                For me, bay leaves are more about aroma than taste. If you want to get rid of cooking smells, i.e. fish, simmer a couple of bay leaves in a pan of water.

                                                1. n
                                                  niki rothman Dec 11, 2006 11:47 PM

                                                  You're right, it's crazy when a recipe says "ONE bay leaf" - one bay leaf from most people's kitchens is tasteless - because we let the bottle sit around too long. we just don't use them up fast enough to get the full potency. I always use about 6 of them for a recipe calling for one. Then you do get a very nice woodsey aroma that definitely adds something very positive to whatever it is you're cooking. Also, don't add them at the beginning if you're going to be cooking for more than 45 minutes. Routinely, I add all my spices only at the last 45 minutes of a long - cooking item. Otherwise, the flavor becomes muddy and you lose the subtlety.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: niki rothman
                                                    Anne H Dec 12, 2006 01:53 AM

                                                    I'll second the idea of almost always adding more than the recipe calls for, depending on the age of the bay leaves. I just opened a new bag from Penzey's and they are very aromatic, but I don't think they last long, even with the jar lid on tight.

                                                    1. re: niki rothman
                                                      jen kalb Dec 12, 2006 02:37 AM

                                                      I dont get these posts - my turkish bayleaves last a long time in the closet and in most dishes I would never consider more than 2 leaves - they are just too strong when used correctly. You dont want to actually TASTE the strong bayleaf flavor - its just a nice background savory scent and flavor in a finished dish. Maybe people skim away bay leaf/spice fragrance through overaggressive skimming of fat. Its a mystery.

                                                      My suggestion to those who dont get bayleaf - make a nice pilaf, with onions, bayleaf and rice sauteed in butter or olive oil to start (or go whole hog with the full panoply of whole garam masala spices) the bay leaf scent will be evident in your rice cooked this way.

                                                    2. MikeG Dec 11, 2006 11:15 PM

                                                      I don't like CA bay leaves either, and unfortunately, the sort usually sold as live plants here in the US.

                                                      It's not a strong taste that I notice distinctly - most of the time - but I certainly know something's missing if I forget to toss them into the pot.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: MikeG
                                                        Eat_Nopal Dec 12, 2006 12:34 PM

                                                        "It's not a strong taste that I notice distinctly - most of the time - but I certainly know something's missing if I forget to toss them into the pot."

                                                        That is key.... in sophisticated cooking not every ingredient will be discernible (that is a myth of the popular Italian - Meditarrenean movement).... some ingredients form a quiet base for a dish.... you don't really know they are there unless they are missing.... they are just a part of a dish seeming right, & balanced.

                                                        In most recipes.... Bay Leaves fall in that camp.

                                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal
                                                          Kagey Dec 14, 2006 04:25 PM

                                                          Celery, too.

                                                      2. jen kalb Dec 11, 2006 10:56 PM

                                                        The bay leaf flavor comes out better if you fry it with the onions etc. instead of just throwing it into a liquid-filled pot. I can taste it either way but better if its cooked in the with some fat

                                                        Dont buy the hype for those big pretty california leaves. the uglier smaller turkish leaves taste better.

                                                        1. HaagenDazs Dec 11, 2006 10:33 PM

                                                          Make sure you're using Turkish Bay Laurel. The California variety (sorry Hungry Celeste) impart a medicinal menthol-y taste. In my opinion, they are inferior, but... to each his/her own! The California Bay are most often seen when you buy fresh bay leaves in pre-packed bags or fresh at the farmer's market. My suggestion is to use dried Turkish Bay or if you're feeling botanical, buy a Turkish bay laurel and plant it in a pot or outside. They usually do pretty well outside as long as you don't live in Minnesota. Ironically, Turkish bay trees grow fantastically in California...

                                                          7 Replies
                                                          1. re: HaagenDazs
                                                            Karl S Dec 11, 2006 11:38 PM

                                                            I have a Turkish bay laurel in a pot in my kitchen. WOnderful to have for making bouquet garni, but there are discriminating chefs who believe that bay should never be used fresh. In any event, California bay is far too harsh to cook with; but it is pretty.

                                                            1. re: HaagenDazs
                                                              Hungry Celeste Dec 12, 2006 02:56 PM

                                                              No need to apologize to me...my tree is a bay laurel, not the CA kind.

                                                              1. re: HaagenDazs
                                                                toodie jane Dec 12, 2006 03:09 PM

                                                                OK gotta jump in here.

                                                                There is ONE culinary bay:

                                                                Laurus nobilis ("Turkish Bay" or "Grecian Laurel")a small 20-30'compact, cone-shaped shrubby tree. Prized by cooks as bay leaves, a kitchen herb. Easily available at U.S. garden centers from 3" pots to 15 gallons. Hardy only to about 20 F.

                                                                There is also completely different genus:

                                                                Umbellaria californica ("California Bay Laurel" "Oregon Myrtle")
                                                                native to Northwestern U.S. Coast Range, a rangey, upright tree with drooping branches to 40-100 feet. Commercialy grown only by specialty native plant growers and not casually availble at garden centers, even in its native range. Hardy to about 10 F w/o damage. Some visitors to the West Coast from Big Sur north will harvest leaves to use in cooking, but they are not as sweet as Grecian Bay, stronger in the camphor notes, bitter, etc.

                                                                Hungry Celeste most certainly has a "Grecian Laurel" in her yard as Calif Bay Laurels are not often chosen as landscape plants except by native plant fanciers.

                                                                So all you cooks, there is no discussing "California Bay" as a seasoning because it ain't happening. Plants are usually available by special order and the leaves are NOT sold as seasoning, except by unscrupulous merchants perhaps. The leaves are much thinner, by the way; very unlike the stout leaves of L. nobilis, sold everywhere as "culinary bay leaves".

                                                                *note: many west coast farmers markets will sell Calif Bay this time of year for decoration, as they make up into beautiful wreaths, but again the leaves are not (or certainly should NOT be) sold as culinary bay. If so, shame on them!

                                                                err, sorry, end of lecture.....

                                                                1. re: toodie jane
                                                                  Karl S Dec 12, 2006 03:44 PM

                                                                  Well, those decorations are often sold for culinary as well as decorative us.

                                                                  For a very well-known example, the William-Sonoma california bay wreath:


                                                                  1. re: Karl S
                                                                    toodie jane Dec 12, 2006 05:32 PM

                                                                    The copy writers? botanists they ain't, and it shows some folks'll sell the unsuspecting public anything as long as it 'looks good' and 'sounds good'.

                                                                    "Laurus nobilis--ask for it by name!"

                                                                  2. re: toodie jane
                                                                    Babette Dec 12, 2006 06:05 PM

                                                                    Well, someone sells the CA bay leaves, my husband bought a bag of them by mistake--too unpleasant for cooking, but I think I read on this board that they are a deterrent to those little moth thingies that occasionally come into our pantries if you spread them out on your shelves.

                                                                    1. re: toodie jane
                                                                      SnackHappy Dec 19, 2006 10:42 PM

                                                                      "There is ONE culinary bay:"

                                                                      Except for the other one: Cinnamomum tejpata


                                                                  3. r
                                                                    ricepad Dec 11, 2006 10:24 PM

                                                                    Gads...I'm so glad that somebody else thinks the Emperor wears no clothes! I mean, I put bay leaves in dishes whose recipes call for bay leaves, but I've never noticed the difference.

                                                                    1. h
                                                                      Hungry Celeste Dec 11, 2006 09:05 PM

                                                                      I have a bay tree growing in my yard. Good fresh bay has an aroma like nothing else...slightly menthol, very subtle, and a necessary component of many things I cook on a regular basis (courtbouillion, red beans, gumbo, etc). Try getting some really fresh bay leaves, or at least some relatively fresh dried ones. On the other hand, it might just be a fragrance you can't detect...we don't all smell in the same ways!

                                                                      9 Replies
                                                                      1. re: Hungry Celeste
                                                                        SarahEats Dec 11, 2006 09:23 PM

                                                                        I agree with Hungry Celeste that it might just be a flavor you can't detect. My husband and I found this out the hard way after spending $50+ per person to eat a truffle brunch at a local restaurant. Everyone else was ooing and ahhing over the truffles and we couldn't taste a darn thing.

                                                                        1. re: SarahEats
                                                                          Shazam Dec 11, 2006 09:31 PM

                                                                          Yes, there is a certain segment of the population that cannot taste or smell truffles. I'm extremely sensitive to the smell; it usually knocks me out.

                                                                          As for bay leaves, I can certainly taste them. I once even made a soup where the bay leave taste was too strong (I accidently dropped some leaves in and never took them out).

                                                                          1. re: Shazam
                                                                            SarahEats Dec 11, 2006 09:39 PM

                                                                            Not to hijack this post, but I've heard people fall into three categories where truffles are concerned - (1) they can't taste or smell them, (2) the smell/taste is overpowering or (3) they taste/smell amazing.

                                                                            1. re: SarahEats
                                                                              Louise Dec 11, 2006 10:03 PM

                                                                              Well, unfortunately for my wallet, I fall in category #3.

                                                                              1. re: Louise
                                                                                SarahEats Dec 12, 2006 07:55 PM

                                                                                Maybe I should be thankful then!

                                                                              2. re: SarahEats
                                                                                laylag Dec 11, 2006 10:18 PM


                                                                                1. re: SarahEats
                                                                                  Will Owen Dec 12, 2006 04:54 AM

                                                                                  By way of illustration: there are many streets here in Pasadena that are lined with camphor trees. When these are in full fruit, billions of the little berry-like offspring send out a pungent aroma that practically knocks me out. As we're driving down the street, the waves of smell are almost visible to me, they're so strong...but Mrs. O can't smell anything at all! She can smell a catbox that needs cleaning from all the way upstairs, and if I've neglected to brush my teeth she can smell that from across the room, but the sharp resinous bite of camphor-tree berries doesn't register at all.

                                                                                  1. re: Will Owen
                                                                                    Das Ubergeek Dec 12, 2006 02:20 PM

                                                                                    God, is THAT what the horrendous reek of Orange Grove Boulevard and Lake Street and... and... is?? When I go play tennis in South Pas I have to drive out of my way to avoid that God-awful stench...

                                                                                    ...and while bayleaves have a taste to me, it's not overpowering.

                                                                                2. re: Shazam
                                                                                  PhoebeB Jun 18, 2007 08:28 PM

                                                                                  Same here. I'm very cautious with bay leaves because they can take over and obliterate everything else. Same with cloves, same with oregano.

                                                                            2. C. Hamster Dec 11, 2006 09:04 PM

                                                                              I agree that maybe yours were very old. They, to me, have a very distinctive taste that I always pick up.

                                                                              1. Katie Nell Dec 11, 2006 09:03 PM

                                                                                I really can't either and I've used both fresh and dried, grocery store variety and Penzey's... I still have never really tasted them in whatever I've been cooking, but I continue to use them!

                                                                                1. c
                                                                                  chez cherie Dec 11, 2006 08:55 PM

                                                                                  how old are your bay leaves? that might be the issue. i cook rice with a bay leaf, and it completely changes the flavor of the rice.

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