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~ Cooking with Bay Laurel (Fresh vs. Dried Leaves) ~

IMG_7419My husband grows things.  He's one of those people with two green thumbs.  So, when he decided to add a bay laurel tree to his herb garden, for me it meant one more in a long list of wonderful fresh herbs I get to cook with throughout the year.  The good news for the bay tree is, it gets to come indoors for the Winter and enjoys a sunny spot in front of my kitchen patio doors.

IMG_7404There was never a time that I didn't have a jar of Turkish bay leaves on my kitchen spice rack.  Over the years, I've given my fair share of small spice racks to new brides and I'm always careful to include bay leaves on it.  I always thought bay leaves were one of those must-have herbs that no good cook can bear to be without.  Duh?

Two days ago I was chatting with my cousin who has decided to serve my recipe for shrimp cocktail at Thanksgiving.  His mother, my mother, and, pretty much everyone who has ever tasted my shrimp always say they're the best they've ever tasted.  (Secret:  I poach really big shrimp in equal parts water and white wine to which 1 lemon and 4 bay leaves have been added).

He didn't ask for the recipe, he knows where to find it, he was just being sweet in telling me.  I, in kind, offered to mail him a few fresh bay leaves, to use in place of dried -- I thought I would impress him.  He said,  "Oh, you add bay leaves to your shrimp, someone in my office told me they read somewhere bay leaves are poisonous."

This kind of misinformation makes me stark raving crazy!

Within a few minutes I had my dear cousin on the same page as me and we were laughing about it.  I promised to write this for the folks in his office.  To whom it may concern:

Bay leaves sold for culinary purposes are not poisonous and are perfectly safe to cook with.  But, because they're very tough and hard to digest, they are always discarded, not eaten, after cooking.

Moving right along.  Once we got past food safety, his next question, which I found quite curious, was "if I don't put it in the shrimp, will anyone notice?" My answer, "between you, me and the wall cousin (I was losing patience with him), all you have to do is taste two identical dishes, one made with bay leaves and one made without bay leaves to know how important they are."

While tender, leafy herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley) loose their intensity after drying, becoming almost useless, tougher, woody ones (oregano, rosemary, marjoram) do not -- bay leaves fit into this latter classification.  In the case of bay leaves, they are quite mild after harvesting and do not develop their full flavor until several weeks after drying.  The climate of the Mediterranean is condusive to bay laural, with Turkey being the largest producer, which is why the term "Mediterranean" and "Turkish" is used interchangeably depending upon the manufacturer.  

Fresh or dried bay leaves, which come from the laurel tree are the most used herb in the world. In ancient times they were woven into garlands worn by Roman and Greek Emperors, poets, Olympians, scholars and super-heros.  Today we drop them into all sorts of slow cooked foods and they're always included in a classic bouquet garni (boo-KAY, gahr-NEE) -- a bunch of herbs (the classic being parsley, thyme and bay leaf) that are either tied together or wrapped in cheesecloth, which makes for their easy removal from stocks, soups, stews and braises.

IMG_7434 Umbellularia_californica_phyllumFresh Turkish bay leaves (on the left) are the best in the world. Not as strong as the USA's CA variety (right), they have a musty, deep flavor the menthol-esque tasting CA varieties can't hope to match.  They have oval leaves, 1"-4" long, while the CA leaves are longer and slenderer.  Julia Child was not a fan of CA bay laurel.  Classic bay leaves are labeled as "Turkish" or "Mediterranean".  The California variety will always be labeled as "California".  There are Indian bay leaves too, which while not the subject of this post, are worth mentioning because their distinct and delightful cinnamony taste means they should not be used as a substitution for Turkish or California varieties.  Fresh bay leaves, of any culinary variety, are considerably milder than their dried counterpart.

IMG_7422The larger a fresh or dried bay leaf, the larger the amount of flavor it imparts.  This is why recipes usually instruct using small, medium or large-sized leaves. When dried, the fragrance of the Turkish bay leaf is herbal, kinda floral, and kinda similar to oregano or thyme.  My rule is to use twice as many fresh bay leaves to dried bay leaves.

Dried bay leaves can be crushed or ground to a powder.  Because of the increased surface area, crushed leaves impart more flavor, but, they are hard to remove from the finished dish, so they need to be wrapped and tied into a piece of cheesecloth before adding them to cooking food.  Ground bay leaves, while they do not need to be removed, are quite strong, which is why they are often found as a component in savory spice blends, the most famous being: 

IMG_7392Cooking with Bay Laurel (Dried vs. Fresh Leaves):  Commentary explains the difference between cooking with culinary safe fresh or dried bay laurel leaves.

Special Equipment List:  food dehydrator (for drying fresh bay leaves); electric spice grinder or mortar and pestle (for processing dried bay leaves to a powder)

PICT4452Cook's Note:  ~ Once upon a time... A Tale about Shrimp Cocktail ~ can be found by clicking into Categories 1, 11, 14, 16, 18 or 26. 

6a0120a8551282970b015437a1e06e970cMy shrimp deserve great sauce and I've got ~ Two "Cocktail" Sauces:  Classic and Creamy ~.  They're in Categoriees 8 & 20! 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


Debi -- If you bought them at Wegman's I am betting they are definitely Turkish or Mediterranean. California bay leaves must be labeled as such, so, the fact they're from Columbia makes me almost 100% certain. One or two in your soup will be fabulous! ~ Melanie

Hi! I just bought fresh bay leaves from Wegmans. I see that they are from Columbia. Wondering which variety they are(Turkish/Meditarranian versus California) and whether they'd be good in my chicken barley vegetable soup?

I'm glad you enjoyed the article Winnie. I hope I get the opportunity to taste Philipino Adobo very soon -- I just might make it myself!

Nice article! I just want to share my own experience. If you are familiar with the Filipino dish the "Adobo" they been using Laurel leaves and it makes the food to smell and tast good. I always cook this recipe on my condo.

Rose Marie -- this is fascinating -- I had NO idea, and, I would love to know more! Thanks for sharing!!!

Melanie, in Sicily we make a bay leaf liquor. It's so delicious!
I saw the recipe posted on a Sicilian food blog the other day. Thanks for all the great info.

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