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I am an amateur hobbyist cook. So a lot of the time I will toss in a dash of something, taste the dish, and add a bit more. Experimenting sometimes with disastrous results... but I learn :)

One spice that I am having a hard time figuring out is the bay leaf. I use it when called for, and have sometimes experimented with it, but I can't seem to place the "effect" it has on the dish.

So my questions:

  1. What is the general flavor of a bay leaf, is there a dish that exemplifies this?
  2. How long do I need to cook with a bay leaf before it has an effect?

I think part of my quandary is that I can't simply add some to a sauce, stir it in, and taste it to see the difference. Am I wrong to believe that it takes awhile to permeate the dish?

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I couldn't agree with you more. I've never found that bay leaves add anything to my cooking and have stopped using them. With the one exception of Indian Bay leaves (Tej Patta) that do impart a cinnamon flavour to cooking and I use those in Indian dishes. The standard European or Mediterranean bay leaf is too subtle to bother with in my opinion. –  spiceyokooko Dec 28 '12 at 18:19
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You may be using bay leaves that have lost all their flavor -- even dry, you should be able to detect some aroma. You could try crumbling a leaf and it in a cup of hot water (as if making tea) to get an idea of the flavor. Also, you may be able to find fresh bay -- either someone with a bush in their backyard, or in the produce section of one of the ritzier grocery stores. That will give you a clear picture of the taste. –  Josh Caswell Dec 28 '12 at 19:01
    
The medieval spice mix "poudre fort" often involves bay leaf ground to a powder. That could be a good way to get a real handle on what it tastes like. –  Marti Jan 16 at 14:43

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I don't know how you would describe the flavor of bay--I would call it a subtle savoriness, with a complex aroma.

Bay is very tough--almost sharp. It is generally not eaten directly. Instead, the whole leaf (or several whole leaves) are put into a dish or sauce to cook with it, then removed prior to service.

The shortest recipe I have for using bay is in a rice pilaf while it cooks, which is 15-30 minutes depending. I am not aware of an upper time limit.

Here is a Miami Herald article offering some other perspectives on using bay leaves:

http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/30/2823923/cooking-with-bay-leaves.html

As they Herald points out, many folks prefer Turkish bay rather than California bay, because it has a more complex, subtle flavor.

. . .

I believe custard in Britain had bay as a traditional ingredient--you might make a custard with a single bay leaf to get some sense of what it tastes like without lots of competing strong flavors.

. . .

Update: Serious Eats Food Lab has just published an article, What is the point of bay leaves? with lots of good information that may be of interest.

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I've also seen it in a lot of American rice pudding recipes; that might be even easier than custard as a way to try the flavor. –  Jefromi Dec 28 '12 at 20:14

I find bay goes very well with beef. I always put a few in beef stew, even in unusual situations like camping. I also crumble them into beef chili. My husband adds them (whole) to tomato-and-meat sauce for spaghetti.

If whatever you're cooking won't have at least half an hour of simmering, I wouldn't bother with the bay. It takes time to infuse a flavour.

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Doesn't the crumbled bay leave get caught in your teeth? I would think for a more intense bay flavor, you could use a garni bouquet (mesh) bag for the pieces to make them easier to remove when the chili's done. –  Kristina Lopez Dec 28 '12 at 18:53
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I crumble it very very small in the palm of my hand. You could also use a mortar and pestle –  Kate Gregory Dec 28 '12 at 19:12
    
I bet that really ups the bay flavor! Yum! –  Kristina Lopez Dec 28 '12 at 19:21

As Josh Caswell suggested in his comment, you could make a bay infusion.

I find that 'pasta' (spaghetti, etc.) cooked with bay will give you a good flavour profile.

If you can get your hands on the tree, you could cut a branch and use that as a skewer to BBQ fish. They do so on Madeira to stunning effect.

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Don't stop using bay, it's one of the most amazing ingredients ever! It gives depth and soul to anything you cook. It tastes like it smells when it's fresh. If you pick it fresh (you might as well pick a good lot of it to make it worth the effort), soak it in water and bicarb of soda, leave it to dry for 2 or 3 days and store in a jar. Use 1-2 leaves in your average pot of soup/ stew/ whatever. If you just want to taste the difference with and without bay, use it when cooking peas, fresh or frozen (not microwaved). They're a very good match and it should give you a pretty clear idea of the taste change.

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Interesting, I'll have to try the peas. Thanks Kate! –  Andrew Dunaway 2 days ago
    
Very interesting! I'm a very experienced cook, but I'm puzzled by bay leaves too. I love peas, so I am totally going to try this. Welcome to Seasoned Advice! –  Jolenealaska yesterday

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