Many of us have fished a bay leaf out of a bowl of gumbo or a pot of beans, but sometimes it’s hard to remember exactly why we put one in there in the first place.
Bay leaves are the vodka of the spice rack: They don’t have much flavor on their own, but they pair well with many other flavors, add depth and bring out more nuances in stews, soups and slow-roasted dishes.
Fresh bay leaves are more aromatic and can be easy to acquire locally. Bay laurel trees grow well in the area, and a mature tree will supply more of the soft green leaves than a cook can use.
“Bay laurels are very hardy. They can take our summer heat, and they can take the wind,” Peggy Cornelius, owner of Tom’s Thumb Nursery and Landscaping in Galveston, said. “I have one at home that’s huge, 7 or 8 feet tall, that I’ve kept in a pot. You can plant them anywhere there’s full sun.”
Cornelius said she uses her bay leaves frequently in cooking.
“My mom always put one in beef stew,” she said.
Stews and soups most commonly call for bay leaves since the dry leaves give up their aromatic oils slowly. Anything cooked for less than an hour won’t have time to unlock much of the bay leaf’s scent and flavor, though it’s possible to compensate for that by increasing the quantity of bay leaves. In most soups or sauces, two small or one large leaf per quart of liquid is the basic ratio.
To get a hint of bay leaf in something cooked quickly on the grill, it takes many more leaves. Kebabs require as many bay leaves as cubes of meat, but the result is skewers with a balance of complex flavors. It’s important to remember that bay leaves do their job when heated, and should be discarded before serving. When broken, the leaves have sharp edges, and shouldn’t be eaten.
Bay leaves are most commonly paired with meats and slow-cooked vegetables, but a number of cooks are experimenting with using them in sweet dishes as well. They pair well with many fruits, but require some cooking time to add their essence.
While many people enjoy the taste and smell of bay leaves, other creatures don’t.
“The bay leaves keep away bugs,” Cornelius said.
Southern cooks have long kept weevils from invading their pantry by sticking a bay leaf in their flour container, or tying several around the lid of a canister.
Since bay leaves release their flavor when heated, sticking one directly in flour won’t make the flour taste like bay leaves, at least to humans. To weevils, however, a bay leaf is apparently a keep out sign.
Bay leaves also repel kitchen ants; setting a few leaves along their path will deter them from coming in from the outside. Either fresh or dried leaves will repel the ants.
Even cockroaches tend to stay away from bay leaves. Though the bay leaves won’t actually kill roaches, they contain an oil, cinemole, that the bugs don’t like and will avoid. It takes more leaves to repel roaches than ants, and the leaves should be crushed or crumbled to release more of the oil. The crumbled leaves can then be shaken into drawers or cabinets.
For those of us whose taste buds are better developed than the average bug’s, however, coming across a fragrant bay leaf is something to look forward to, not to avoid.
Chicken with Chickpeas
- 1⁄4 cup olive oil
- 8 bay leaves
- 8 chicken thighs, about 3 pounds
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1⁄4 cup dry white wine
- 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 3⁄4 cup chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
- 1 large roasted red pepper, cut into thin strips
- 1⁄4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until almost smoking. Add the bay leaves.
Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, add to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat until well-browned, about 5 minutes per side.
Transfer the chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pan; leave the bay leaves in the pan.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add the wine and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Return the chicken to the skillet. Add the chickpeas and 3⁄4 cup of the chicken stock. Cover and cook over moderately low heat until the chicken is tender, 17 to 20 minutes.
Discard the bay leaves and transfer the chicken to a platter. Stir the pepper strips and parsley into the chickpeas and season with salt and pepper; add a little chicken stock to the chickpeas if they seem dry.
Spoon the chickpea mixture over the chicken and serve.
(Recipe courtesy Penzey’s Spices)
Turkey Bay Leaf Skewers
- 24 bay leaves
- 3 unwaxed lemons, each cut into 8 small wedges
- 11⁄4 pounds skinless turkey breast, cut into 24 bite-sized pieces
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons garlic salt
- 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
Preheat the oven grill to medium-high and line the grill pan with foil.
Place one bay leaf, one lemon wedge and one turkey piece on a metal skewer. Repeat with two more of each.
Divide the remaining bay leaves, lemon wedges and turkey pieces between another seven skewers.
Place all eight skewers on the prepared grill rack.
Mix the lemon juice, dried parsley, oregano, garlic salt and red chili flakes
together. Brush this mixture over the skewers and place them under the grill, about 6 inches from the grill source, for 3-5 minutes.
Turn the skewers, brush with more of the lemon mixture and grill for another 3-5 minutes or until the turkey is cooked through.
Serve the turkey skewers warm or at room temperature.
(Recipe adapted from “On A Stick:
80 Party-Perfect Recipes,”
by Matt Armendariz)
Blackberry Bay Leaf Jam
- 3 pounds fresh blackberries
- 41⁄2 cups sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon, plus 41⁄2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- Pinch of coarse salt
- 1 or 2 dried bay leaves
Place a few small plates in the freezer. Stir together berries, sugar, lemon zest and juice, salt and bay leaves in a large, heavy stockpot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar and mashing lightly with a potato masher.
Skim foam from surface. Cook, stirring more frequently as jam thickens, until it is the consistency of very loose jelly, 10 to 11 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat.
Press about half of the jam through a medium sieve; discard seeds. Return strained jam to the pot and stir until combined. Return to a boil.
Remove a plate from freezer and drop a spoonful of jam on it. Return to freezer for 1 to 2 minutes, then gently nudge edge of jam with a finger. If jam is ready, it should hold its shape. If jam is too thin and spreads out, return to a boil, testing every minute, until done.
Remove bay leaves and discard. Spoon hot jam into jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer.
(Recipe from “Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook,” by Martha Stewart)