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Subtle Bay Leaf Stands on Its Own

Bay leaf can be more than a supporting player

Fine Cooking Issue 37
Photos: Amy Albert
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For an herb that’s probably used more often than any other, the bay leaf is the least understood. We add it to soups and stews as regularly as we add milk to coffee, and then we discard it before anyone can find out it’s there. And so it eludes us. Bay leaves are included in so many recipes without notice or purpose, I’ve sometimes wondered why we bother.

But bay leaf does have a beauty of its own. The depth of its bouquet, which is both flowery and spicy, lends itself to use in savory and sweet dishes: seared pork chops, marinated goat cheese, risotto, pilafs, roasts, and even rice pudding.

Fresh bay is more potent than dried

You’ll run across two main varieties of bay leaves. From California come thin, two- to three-inch-long pointed leaves that smell minty. There’s also a shorter, fatter variety called “Turkish” or “imported,” with a more grassy perfume. The differences between the varieties are clear, especially when it comes to fresh. California bay is much more potent. Turkish is subtle and pleasant, but it’s much better fresh. You may find a preference for one or the other once you cook with them. The California bay leaf comes from a different family than the Turkish, and it does have one potential quirk: when used in excess, it can cause headaches due to a compound it contains.

Fresh bay leaves are bright green and waxy, and they bend and twist without tearing. Look for them in specialty stores and in ethnic markets where the turnover is quick and the leaves usually come straight from the source. The perfume of fresh bay is much stronger than dried so, unlike other herbs, use a smaller amount of fresh than you would dried. I’ve found that fresh bay has a livelier flavor, but in broths, it doesn’t matter as much because the moist heat effectively drains the flavor out of either. If you’re using dried bay in a marinade, add an extra leaf. If you have your own tree or are given a branch of fresh bay, put it in a glass of water and keep it on the kitchen counter, where it will stay fresh for about ten days.

Dried bay leaves should be free of blemishes, cracks, and tears. To bring out the most flavor, I like to soak them in warm water for 15 minutes or so, especially for cold preparations like marinades, but there’s no need to pound or crush bay before adding it to a dish. Well sealed, bay will last about two years before losing its perfume.

As the main seasoning, bay leaf holds its own

Bay succeeds wonderfully when used as the main seasoning—in all kinds of preparations.

• For vinaigrettes, make your standard recipe, add a bay leaf, and let it sit for about a day. For a creamy salad dressing, scald the cream with a bay leaf and let it sit for five to ten minutes. Whisk the cooled cream into a lemon or red-wine vinaigrette.

• For meat, vegetable, and cheese marinades, tuck in a few bay leaves before pouring on the oil and the rest of the ingredients.

• For braises and sautés, add bay leaf to the cooking fat as it heats, just as you would garlic. For great rustic potatoes, make several slits in a potato, insert a bay leaf in the center slit, and braise the potatoes in stock. The bay leaf flavors the potato while curling in the heat of the oven.

• For a bouquet garni for soups, stews, or poaching liquids, use one bay leaf for every quart of liquid, and make a sachet of bay, thyme, peppercorns, and garlic cloves or leek greens.

• For pilafs, beans, and kasha, add a bay leaf along with the cooking liquid.For roasts, line the roasting pan with a bed of bay leaves. For roast chicken, stuff some bay leaves into the cavity.

• For grilling, lay a few bay leaves on top of and underneath whatever you’re cooking for a subtle hint of flavor. Or, thread bay leaves on skewers, interposing them with seafood, vegetables, and meats.

• For baking bread, line the proofing bowl and the baking stone with a few bay leaves, using one or two on top of the loaf for decoration. The leaves gently infuse the crust and they bake to a dark gunmetal gray.

Briefly warming bay leaves in olive oil flavors the oil to use as a marinade.

Bay rounds out sweet flavors in desserts

The more unexpected use of bay is in desserts, where its background perfume rounds out sweet flavors.

• For chocolate ganache, let a leaf infuse in the cream before mixing it with the dark chocolate. The bay adds depth, and it’s a nice way to enrich the dessert without being too off-the-wall.

• Make a bay leaf sorbet or granita by infusing the sugar syrup with a few leaves.

• Flavor fruit poaching syrups with a bay leaf.

• For pastry creams, custards, or puddings, scald the milk or cream with a bay leaf.

• For dusting cakes with confectioners’ sugar, use bay leaves as a stencil.

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