Have you ever noticed the bay leaves in the spice section of the grocery store and wondered what they were and how to use them? Bay leaves impart flavor to a variety of dishes, from old-fashioned chicken soup to Italian flavored pasta sauces. You have probably tasted their unique flavor many times without even realizing it.
A bay leaf looks like a leaf because it is one. It is a leaf from a laurel tree. This little leaf found in not only the kitchen, but it also has a rich history. Did you ever see a picture of Julius Caesar wearing a crown? That was probably from laurel leaves. Bay leaves have been used for candles, medicine and in ancient ceremonies.
Because of its history, bay leaves have been cultivated for centuries. They likely originated in Turkey and expanded west into the Mediterranean area. From there, it spread to France and Spain, and into the cold terrain of Russia. Though this tree grows best in climates that are moderate, it can tolerate some colder areas.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to incorporate this leaf into their society. It became a symbol of honor, and coins and pottery from that era often display these leaves. They were fashioned into crowns to show honorable nobility, and the first Olympians wore laurel crowns.
As you can see, this leaf has a long history. Now that we know a little more about it, let’s focus in on how to use bay leaves in food.
Cooks utilize these either fresh or dried. The flavor is potent, so a little goes a long ways. That’s why recipes typically only call for one bay leaf to flavor an entire pot of soup. Piny, earthy and woodsy all describe the flavor imparted by this leaf. When matched with a sweet flavor profile from carrots or onions, the bay leaf offers a nice hint of bitterness, which becomes a perfect balance of flavors.
Two kinds of bay leaves are available on the market for cooks to utilize. The first is the California Bay Leaf, which is longer and a little thinner than the Turkish or Mediterranean Bay Leaf. The California variety will retain a deep green color. Oval-shaped Turkish bay leaves range in color from silver-green to light brown. The size of the two varieties also differs. California leaves are often larger, and you may only need half of a leaf to impart the flavor you desire.
Once your dish’s cooking completes, the bay leaf is traditionally pulled out. While it is edible, the leaf is very
hard to chew and unpleasant to eat.
Bay leaves offer a unique flavor in the kitchen. The next time you see them in the spice aisle, pick some up and see what dishes you can create.
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