What do bay leaves do? A lot, if you use them right.

Bay leaves can do a lot, if you use them right. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post.

Pity the bay leaf. Once a symbol of success and renown in ancient Greece and Rome, it now suffers a reputation as a pointless, potentially dangerous (choking hazard!), ingredient. Even Ina Garten, perhaps as close as we come these days to the Greek priestesses who consumed bay before making their prophecies, recently wondered aloud what the fuss was all about.

“I will say that I also always wonder whether a bay leaf makes a difference,” Garten said in response to a listener question on the New Yorker Radio Hour. Et tu, Ina?

While many cheered the Barefoot Contessa for giving credence to what they have long felt, I disagree. When used the right way, bay has the power to elevate many of your favorite dishes, even if you don’t realize it.

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“I think that everyone actually loves bay leaf,” but they just can’t pick out the flavor, says Los Angeles pastry chef Rose Wilde, author of a cookbook publishing this fall.

So how do you come around to bay? Here’s what to know about using and appreciating it.

1. What does bay taste like?

“It has such a wide flavor,” Wilde says, encompassing pine, eucalyptus, cinnamon and vanilla. Clove and floral flavors are also typical. Earthy is another descriptor. “It tastes so much like you’re outside in the forest,” Wilde says. “If one herb had a lot of terroir, I would say it would be bay leaf.”

There are two types of bay leaves you are likely to come across. The one most Americans are familiar with is bay laurel, which you may see referred to as Turkish bay. Especially when cooked for extended periods, bay laurel can lend tea-like aromas to dishes, J. Kenji López-Alt says on Serious Eats. California bay is from a completely different plant, with more potent eucalyptus notes that can quickly overpower.

When used the right way, bay has the power to elevate many of your favorite dishes, even if you don’t realize it. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post.

Indian bay leaves, or tej patta or cassia bay leaves, come from the Indian cassia tree and boast citrusy and spiced notes, Cook’s Illustrated says. There are also Caribbean bay leaves, which Wilde became familiar with growing up in Florida and Ecuador. It, too, is not related to bay laurel. Spice brand Burlap & Barrel describes it as having cinnamon, eucalyptus and citrus peel flavors and suggests using it in lieu of bay laurel, cinnamon or nutmeg.

2. Fresh vs. dried bay leaves

While it’s true that dried herbs can pale in comparison to fresh, bay leaves are an exception. When herbs are dried, flavors can evaporate along with the water, Harold McGee explains in “On Food and Cooking.” But like other plants native to hot, dry climates, bay leaves retain their aromatic qualities well.

If you have taken a sniff of fresh and dried leaves and found the dried lacking in pungency, it’s not necessarily because of their form. The biggest difference, López-Alt says, is that most of the fresh leaves you buy are California bay, not bay laurel. He does not recommend substituting fresh for dried unless you really are familiar with the flavor and how it might work in your dish, or you’re sure you’re getting bay laurel, which some people have in their gardens.

3. Buy new bay leaves

When was the last time you bought bay leaves? If you don’t remember or the label is looking suspiciously retro, it’s time get some new ones. The surest way to convince yourself that bay tastes like dust is to let it collect dust. To help the leaves hold onto their flavor, especially if you buy in bulk, store airtight in the freezer, where they will last years, López-Alt says. If you leave them in your cool, dark pantry, they, like other whole herbs and spices, will be at their peak for about a year.

4. Give bay time to work

Because bay so stubbornly holds onto its aromatics, it takes time to coax out its full potential. That’s why it often features in long-cooked dishes, including soups, stews, pots of beans and braises, such as pot roasts. In experiments with tomato sauce and lightly salted water, Cook’s Illustrated found that bay made its presence known in as little as five minutes but needed about an hour to bring out its more than 50 flavor compounds. If you want to jump-start the process, follow a technique common in Indian cuisine and bloom the bay as you heat the butter or oil in your skillet.

5. How to use bay in cooking and baking

“If I ever write a culinary memoir, it’s going to be called ‘A Bay Leaf in Every Pot.’ . . . I just put them in everything,” cookbook author Samin Nosrat said in one of my favorite episodes of Home Cooking, the occasional podcast she hosts with bay leaf skeptic Hrishikesh Hirway.

Bay leaves belong in every pot of beans. This is what made me appreciate them, and when I got lazy and didn’t put them in, the beans tasted sad and flat. As I said, any low- and slow-cooked dish will showcase bay, so try slipping in one or two dried leaves even if the recipe doesn’t call for it. A spice rub is another simple lift.

For desserts, think of employing bay as you would other light and bright herbs, Wilde advises. “Your dessert is going to have way more balance.” One of Wilde’s standbys is adding ground bay to shortbread with a lemon glaze.

Allowing the leaves to bake into the surface of a dessert can also impart noticeable flavor (just be sure you remove them before eating). In “Wild Sweetness,” Thalia Ho infuses butter with dried bay and bakes a few leaves into the surface of her blondies, where the earthy herb dampens the cloying tendencies of white chocolate.

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