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One Bay Leaf Question

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These recipes that call for one bay leaf in a large soup or stew always seem a bit strange to me. I've put two or even three in before and haven't noticed an overpowering flavor. Do other people out there notice a difference if you double the bay leaf amount?

And this weekend I cooked a recipe that said (1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf). Seriously? If they want to refine it by that much shouldn't they say large leaf or small leaf too. Also, if one uses grocery store leaves, who knows how fresh and potent they are. I usually assume they are less fresh and add more leaves.

And now my grocery store carries fresh bay leaves. How are these used (more? less? the same amount?).

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  1. To be honest, I for one can't taste Bay leaf in food. I have bought good quality leaves even fresh and I just don't get it. My wife swears she can taste it if it's added but I don't seem to pick up a difference.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Eric in NJ

      Bay leaf is a weird one...I can't taste its presence, but I know when it's missing. I have a pretty sensitive palate, but can never definitively say "oh yes, that's bay leaf"....by default, I usually toss at least one into anything that's going to be slow cooked.

      I've routinely used 2-3 when it only calls for one, and nobody's died (yet)....and it's a gimme to use 2 small ones if it calls for one big one, etc.

      I use fresh bay leaves, only because they're cheaper and easier to find (I can buy fresh at the open air markets here, but dried takes a trip to the store....) -- but I can't honestly say I could tell you the difference.

      1. re: sunshine842

        >Bay leaf is a weird one...I can't taste its presence, but I know when it's missing.

        I mostly agree, although I did make one extremely unfortunate jambalaya recipe that called for three bay leaves and I thought it was weird-tasting and almost inedible. Process of elimination determined it was the bay - I use dried, but these were enormous - and since then I've gone easy on it.

        1. re: darklyglimmer

          Yes, too much bay leaf is very noticable. I use one or two, or more, depending on quantity of recipe and freshness and size of (dried) leaf. Bay adds a certain something that tends not be be obvious unless overdone, but I miss it's essense if it's not there.

          Unfortunately, I live in the part of the US that doesn't have fresh bay leaves available often; I find the fresh California leaves to be very potent and use them judiciously when I can get them.

          1. re: bushwickgirl

            I must admit that right before I wrote the OP I had used more bay leaf in a recipe and thought I detected something different that I thought might be bay leaf (but I wasn't sure). That was right out of the hot cooking pot. When the soup cooled down and after a couple days as leftovers I couldn't detect it again. It seemed as if it was most noticeable when it was fresh in the hot liquid but it mellowed as the flavors mixed.

      2. re: Eric in NJ

        Same here, not even sure what it's supposed to taste like..
        I add it like you would add magic pixie dust to a dish, just for fear of bad luck if i dare not do it!

        1. re: AnchovyBourdain

          Pixie Dust! Yes, bay leaves are pixie dust to cooking. Love this.

        2. re: Eric in NJ

          I'm with your wife, Eric. I. too, can taste it. The only reason I use one is to cut the acidity of tomato sauce. I drop one in for just a short while, then take it out. Works like a charm.

        3. I totally agree, have always thought how specific recipes are when it comes to bay is really weird. I've put in like 5 or 6 for a gallon of soup (trying to use up old ones... I know I know, just throw them away already...). And what is the difference between Turkish and California?
          Would love to see a real answer if anyone has one.

          7 Replies
          1. re: castiron

            Here's what Penzeys.com says about Turkish bay:

            "Turkish Bay Leaves are the best in the world. Though not as strong as the California variety, they have a natural depth of flavor that the California Bay Leaves can't hope to match. Bay leaves grow wild on the hilly mountains of western Turkey in the area around Izmir (Smyrna). The wind there is perfect for growing bay leaves. Most of the year it comes out of the west across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, picking up moisture and dropping it on the growing trees. At the end of the summer the wind changes direction and comes out of the south. Before it reaches the hills around Izmir it must pass over a couple of mountain ridges, making it hot and dry, perfect for quickly drying the leaves with a minimum of flavor loss. These winds at times create a high risk of forest fires, which in years past have led to a very small bay leaf harvest, but this year we seem to have a nice supply for the coming season. The flavor of Bay Leaves is perfect for adding to roast pork or chicken, pot roast, turkey, or ham, use 2-3 leaves and remove before serving. Bay Leaves are also perfect for spaghetti sauce and chicken soup, use 2 per quart. A surprising fact is that Bay Leaves improve the flavor of salt-free dishes with their rich flavor. Note: bay leaves are very light (8 ounces by weight equals one gallon by volume). "

            Note that they recommend 2-3 for most things!

            1. re: castiron

              Bay trees are common around the Bay Area. Old trees can be very large, multi-trunked and handsome. Those of us who prefer local foraging to store-bought use our own bay leaves. I found out the wrong way how much stronger they are by making a stew that smelled like after-shave lotion.

              1. re: Sharuf

                Ah, but not everyone lives in a climate that will support bay trees...and not everyone trusts the tree down the street to be free of fertilizers, pesticides, and traffic residues (which frequently contain heavy metals).

              2. re: castiron

                They come from completely different and unrelated trees. Turkish bay leaves, known as bay laurel, come from Laurus Nobilis. California bay comes from the aptly named Umbellularia californica. As sunshine's quote indicates, California bay is much stronger than bay laurel, and has what some consider a menthol-like note.

                Despite the name, Turkish bay grows well anywhere that has a mild winter, and if pruned down regularly can be kept in a large pot in colder climates---assuming you have a sunny window for its winter home. It does, however, take a few years to attain a harvestable size.

                1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                  Right, bay laurel is different from California bay. However, plenty of bay laurels grow in California. So it's quite possible to get bay leaves from California that are true bay leaves, not "California Bay" leaves, which are, btw, longer and narrower than bay laurel:

                  http://www.csuchico.edu/biol/Herb/cur...

                  1. re: Karen_Schaffer

                    Certainly didn't mean to imply otherwise!

                    It's also worth noting that the fresh bay leaves that come in those little plastic containers are almost always California bay, even though they're never labeled one way or the other. Definitely helps to know the difference in appearance.

                    1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                      Sorry, I wasn't trying to imply that you didn't know the difference! I just wanted to add the clarification for others.

                      I didn't realize that they package California Bay leaves. Surely they must sell fresh Bay Laurel too, don't they? Fresh Bay Laurel have such a lovely, complex scent, different from the dry leaves, and so much nicer than the California Bay which is almost medicinal. Bay laurels grow like weeds once they get established, so it would be an easy business. I need to seriously trim mine back pretty soon, because it's getting out of hand.

              3. a good tip is to saute the leaves in your oil before adding anything else. even before the onion. this will allow the oils and esters in the leaves to be released.

                and yes, i always use a few.

                8 Replies
                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  That's interesting. I will try it out the next time.

                  And maybe I will take a bunch of leaves and soak them in oil and try to compare the bay leaf oil versus the non-infused oil just to see if I can figure out the flavor nuances a bit more.

                  1. re: smkit

                    Sounds like something I will try too. Thanks

                    1. re: smkit

                      it's the hot oil, not just the oil's presence, that releases the oils. this is true of all dried spices and a good technique to keep in mind. it's traditional in indian cooking to "fry" the spices.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        I understand the heating of the spices and do that. But I don't think I've ever made a recipe that tells you to add the bay leaf then, it usualy tells you to put it in once the liquid is added.

                        1. re: Eric in NJ

                          I just made a Florentine tomato soup from 12 Months of Monastary Soups where the bay leaf was sauteed with the other aromatics. The end product was tasty, but as I said upthread, I can't taste bay unless it's Too Much Bay.

                          1. re: Eric in NJ

                            it's a tip i got from jasper white when he was guest cheffing at the restaurant where i worked. i've done it ever since and it makes a huge difference.

                            1. re: Eric in NJ

                              Most of Cooks Illustrated's recipes saute it with the aromatics...

                        2. re: hotoynoodle

                          Yes, good tip. I fry my bay leaves in a a little oil briefly before adding anything else. I find it a subtle background kind of flavor. If I'm making Cuban black beans and it's not there I miss it. Same of some tomato based sauces and chili. I usually add more than a recipe calls for

                        3. i use at least 5. in the summer i often put the leaves between the skewered meat. also, stuff loads inside a bird or fish.

                          i have a bay laurel plant so only fresh leaves are used. it's so aromatic and yet not overpowering.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Pata_Negra

                            My Jewish grandmother used bay leaf in almost all her cooking - when she made meatballs, when she made borscht, when she made pot roasted chicken - and used virtually no other herbs or spices (garlic, onion, carrots, celery tomatos and lemon juice were her other standards), so the taste of bay leaf is very distinct for me and was essential to the overall flavor of a dish, even if only 1 leaf was used. Not sure I can describe the taste - I wouldn't say it tasted "like" wine - but it had the same impact on a dish that wine would - a slight darkening, sweetening, mellowing flavor - something that combined the other flavors -- and made them more than the sum of their parts. Also "perfumed" whatever dish it was in. I've sometimes added two leaves when a recipe calls for one - but I would never leave it out. Love it.

                          2. I love bay leaf and consider it almost essential for any chicken broth/stock and soup, particularly chicken and dumplings. And I may have to try the sauteeing in oil tip.