In Defense of the Bay Leaf
I was not always a bay leaf-er. For years, I had a container of bay leaves that I dutifully bought and tucked away in the recesses of my spice cabinet for those times when a recipe really insisted on their use. But if you had asked me what they tasted like, or what a bay leaf brought to the table in terms of flavor, I wouldn't have been able to say. I nodded along to Kelly Conaboy's investigation into "the vast bay leaf conspiracy," because, well, she made some solid points—why did you have to add them, anyway? Wasn't it obviously a scam when you had to fish the herb out of the pot at the end to prevent your untimely demise from choking on a pointy leaf? Who decided this was a good plan in the first place?
Things started to turn around for me during my time at French culinary school. French chefs, according to my reading materials, really, really love bay leaves. They use them in everything—sauces, soups, stocks. They're not just pivotal in French food, either. Bay leaves are an important component in many cuisines, used widely in countries like India, Turkey, and Italy. They're also crucial in dishes like gumbo and Texas chili. In class, I noticed something in particular about the bay leaves we were using in quantity: They actually smelled like something. If you snapped one in half, it released an herbaceous aroma that clung to your hands. Unlike the musty container I was working with at home, these bay leaves brought more flavor complexity to braises and sauces.
Dried Bay leaves do bring more nuance to your stockpot, but it turns out, that's only true if they're reasonably freshly dried. (Here I'm not talking about fresh bay leaves, which are also excellent, but used differently than the dried varietal.) They're an herb, after all, and herbs are just plants. They hang onto flavor for a long time, but not forever. Turns out that if you have had the same container of bay leaves in your cabinet since 2010, the flavor has degraded to nothing. My dismal success rate with bay leaves was being reinforced by the poor materials at hand: I added a bay leaf to a simmering pot and it did nothing, which meant I never reached for the container at the back of the cabinet, allowing it to degrade further. If you have bay leaves that don't smell like anything when you break them in half, you should throw out those bay leaves.
Replacing that container with better quality bay leaves was a revelation for me. Adding them to my weekly pot of beans or occasional braised short ribs or in rice dishes like vegetable Biryani made the dish more complex, rather than just slightly more hazardous. If your bay leaves are musty and old, they aren't doing anything—like most spices, their shelf life isn't as long as people assume. Keeping up a supply of good, fresher bay leaves means that I actually use them, and the more I use them, the less chance they have of lingering in a cabinet until they surrender the last molecule of flavor. I particularly recommend Burlap & Barrel's Laurel Bay Leaves and Spice House's Turkish Bay Leaves, both companies with sourcing practices that mean the bay leaves are less ancient than the ones you might pick up at your grocery store. If you're a bay leaf skeptic, listen, I get it. But before you throw out the whole idea of bay leaf cookery, make sure that it's not just your particular bay leaves that are the issue. You just may bay leaf yet.