When I was little, I was fascinated by the small dried jars of spices in the kitchen cabinet. One jar wasn’t marked but had long leaves that were not crumbled and broken like most of the other jars. My mom would throw one of the leaves into spaghetti sauce as it simmered on the stove. I later learned that the unmarked jar was bay laurel.
Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), also known as sweet bay, is a familiar herb to many, but a mystery to grow. I get asked a lot about how to grow it. Outdoors, it is a large, shrubby evergreen native to Mediterranean regions of the world. It is hardy outside to USDA zones 8 and above.
Many times, I have come across a bay tree growing in a garden, and the homeowner had no idea what it was. After an ID, they are usually surprised that is is that simple leaf used for flavoring.
Aside from what to do with it, bay does make a handsome evergreen shrub in the garden. It can get rangy but takes to slight trimming as needed. I say “slight” trimming because every cut will yield a burst of new growth. This is one of the reasons it is popular trimmed and shaped as a topiary, regular trimming keeps branches flush and full of new leaves.
Indoors as a houseplant, bay makes a lovely little tree. It will appreciate light in a sunny window. It is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm a space. I usually take my small potted trees outdoors in the summer to use as centerpieces on the outdoor dining table. In the fall, I trim them to a tidy shape again and bring them back inside.
The leaves have a spicy fragrance when crushed. Use fresh leaves for a sweeter taste. Dried leaves will be less pungent but will have a more pronounced camphor-like aroma. Bay leaves are typically used in pickling spices, soups, stews, roasting meats, and as a flavoring for vinegar. Because the leaf is very tough and does not disintegrate in cooking, it is one of the few herbs that can be added early in simmering and cooking. Use cut branches for flavoring smoked foods.
Make your own herb “garnish bouquet” – known in the culinary world as bouquet garni.
Popular in French cooking, these are tiny fresh herb bouquets tied with cooking twine and floated in simmering soups and stews, Sometimes the herbs are wrapped in cheesecloth and tied to makes them easy to remove from the pot (bouquet garni is removed before serving). In Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her famous Boeuf Bourguignon recipe calls for an herb bouquet made of 4 sprigs parsley, two sprigs thyme, and one bay leaf.
A note of caution: Always remove whole bay leaves from a dish before serving; the leaves are hard to digest and can cause choking. Know your plants! Never confuse true Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) with California bay or other types of laurel, which can be toxic if eaten.
Bay can be a rich source of vitamins and a tea made from the leaves helps after a meal of heavy fats or foods to calm the stomach. The leaves have an enzyme that helps to breakdown complex proteins from meats and other foods, promoting faster digestion and soothing irritable stomach and bowels.
Bay Leaf Tea
8 ounces water
1 to 2 bay leaf
Bring water to a boil in a glass saucepan, add bay leaf and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat and allow the infusion of water and bay to steep for 5 minutes or longer until it begins to cool down. For added flavor add, lemon juice and raw honey to taste.
Another childhood memory. There was always dried bay leaf in the cornmeal and flour canisters in the kitchen cupboard. The leaves are a natural way to keep moths, ants, silverfish, and weevils away from dried products while they are in storage. Add a bay leaf to dry goods in an airtight container. Change the leaf every few months to keep them pungent and useful. You can also hang a small garland of leaves inside a pantry to help stay fresh and add overall natural pest deterrent.
String fresh-cut leaves on heavy waxed string to create bay garlands. Add dried apple or orange slices to make lovely fragrant garlands for decorating over the holiday season.