How to Use Bay Leaves: The Misunderstood Herb

Dear Home Ec 101:
A friend told me that bay leaves are poisonous, and that’s why you remove them before serving. Isn’t it kind of…insane to cook with a poison plant? If they are ok, would you tell me how to use bay leaves?
Signed,
Is it safe?

Bobbie says:

You know, that never made sense to me, either. My reasoning was “If it’s true, the poison gets into the food during the cooking process, so the removal of the leaf is a moot point. And if it’s not true – why are we supposed to remove it?” So, I finally looked into it, because I wanted to feel comfortable using them. And not die much.

Without getting into the technical terms I came across in my research (sesquiterpene lactone, anyone?) let me assure you that the bay leaves sold for cooking are not poisonous, and are perfectly fine to cook with. The herb commonly referred to as “bay leaf” comes from an evergreen shrub or tree (depending on where it’s grown) called bay laurel, also known as Laurus nobilis or sweet bay, and its leaves are non-toxic in reasonable quantities.

The confusion regarding whether or not bay leaves poisonous may come, in part, from the fact that other laurels are toxic, and the leaves look similar. If you aren’t 100000% certain the tree you want to pick a leaf from to toss into your stew is the right kind, then DON’T. Just stick with bay leaves sold for cooking and you’ll be fine.

Did you notice I said “reasonable quantities?” Too much of a good thing can be bad, and that includes bay leaves. Don’t worry though — in order to get a toxic effect from bay leaves, you’d need to eat at least several quarts of packed leaves. Who, in their right mind, is going to do that?  (Of course, some people are allergic to certain plants, and should avoid them. That doesn’t mean they’re poisonous. My dad was allergic to basil. Very sad.)

Why should I “remove bay leaf” before serving?

Those leaves are tough!

Even all-day simmering in a soup or stew does not disintegrate or soften them. They’ll be leathery at best, and the edges can be a little sharp. Besides being downright unpleasant to swallow, a bay leaf can scratch your throat, stomach or intestines. In my research I found mentions in a medical journal of individuals who had inadvertently swallowed a whole bay leaf, which then became lodged in their digestive tract, causing extreme pain. The leaves had to be surgically removed. So…keep the leaves WHOLE when adding to the pot, and when removing, count to make sure you’ve gotten them all.

I’d dismissed them, not realizing that they were the very thing that made the aroma of mom’s vegetable soup so comforting. Here's how to use bay leaves in many recipes.

Do bay leaves really make a difference?

Yes. Next question.

Just kidding. Yesterday, I mentioned to a friend that I was going to write about bay leaves. She said she never understood the point of them, since the recipes always say to take them out anyway, so she’s always omitted them. As we talked, I tried to convey what she was missing, and by the time we parted ways, she was excited that I am going to bring her some of my stash when next we meet.

When I was newly married and teaching myself to cook things that didn’t require mixes, any attempt at making beef stew came out wrong. Not that it was horrible, but it didn’t taste like mom’s stew, which was simply the best I’d ever had. Same with vegetable soup, and pot roasts. They even smelled wrong when they were cooking. After talking with her, I figured out that what I’d been missing was the bay leaf. Like my friend, I’d dismissed them as not that big a deal, not realizing that they were the very thing that made the aroma of mom’s vegetable soup so comforting.

Yes, comforting. Relaxing. Soothing. I’ve even simmered a few bay leaves in a pot of water simply for the aroma. (Weird? Yeah, okay. I already know.) Give me that savory fragrance over a sweet, cloying candle or air freshener any day.  But, as much as I love them, the words to describe the rich flavor that bay leaves bring to a dish elude me. It’s nothing overt. Subtle. Woodsy comes to mind. Slightly bitter. Pungent? And ever so slightly piney.

As the French say, it has a certain je ne sais quoi.* (Because they don’t know, either.)

Okay, fine….. so, what can I do with bay leaves?

How To Use Bay Leaves

There are tons of things you can do with bay leaves…here’s a few ideas to get you started. Even if your recipe doesn’t call for bay leaves, you can use them in:

Roast beast. Try Heather’s pot roast. Or try my standard method for beef or pork roasts: add 2 or 3 bay leaves (depending on size of roast), a few peppercorns, garlic, and onion. Then I add about ¼ cup of either white wine vinegar or the liquid from a jar of pepperoncini if I have some. Cook all day on low. Make a roux to thicken the juices that cook out to make gravy that will stun the diners. (Not like a phaser. A good stun.)

Stews of any kind: beef, pork, poultry, or vegetarian. Add at the beginning of cooking and let the long simmer add a depth to your favorite recipe.

Braising. Any meat that is cooked in liquid is fair game. Like Heather’s Beef Short Ribs. Or Chicken Bog. Oh, you MUST make this  Wine Braised Pot Roast.

Stocks and soups. Add bay leaf when making stock. Bay leaf does wonders for anything tomato-based, including spaghetti sauce and chili.  They’re in my pea soup recipe, which you’ve already tried, right?

Baked potatoes: cut scrubbed potato in half, put a bay leaf between the halves, reassemble and wrap in foil, then bake. The flavor permeates the potato flesh as it bakes. (Remove leaf, add butter or olive oil, salt, pepper as desired)

Making mashed potatoes? Add a leaf to the boiling water. Remove before mashing.

Add to any bean or lentil dish. Red beans and rice. Baked beans. Or add a couple leaves to the water when cooking dried beans.

Make pickled peppers, which are delicious on a roast beef sandwich, or served alongside pork or beef roast. These are a fresh pickle, not preserved. Pack sliced green peppers in a sterilized pint jar, along with 2 or 3 cloves of garlic (cut in half), 2 bay leaves, and ½ teaspoon salt. Fill jar with equal parts of boiling water and boiling vinegar. Seal and let cool, then refrigerate at least overnight before using. Store in refrigerator up to 2 weeks. (I first made this with distilled white vinegar, which was good, but it’s even better using white wine vinegar.)

Quick Beef and Cabbage skillet – Simple food, but I could eat this at least once a week, and my husband loves it too, even as reheated leftovers!

Did you know Old Bay Seasoning contains ground bay leaves? (I can’t stand the stuff, but I know some people who would still eat it even if it bay leaves were toxic.)

Do you have a favorite way to use bay leaves?

*translates to: “I don’t know what”

Bonus Points to anyone who caught my movie reference and can name the actor who said the line. You win the internet.

__________

Bobbie Laughman is an elder caregiver, writer and introvert who is bad at small talk, but occasionally gets on a soapbox about one thing or another, and feels embarassed about it when she comes to her senses. Contact her with questions or feedback at Bobbie@home-ec101.com



36 Comments

  1. Michael Duke on May 30, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    I use bay leaves in just about every savory soup or stew. My eureka moment came when I added them to Chicken Cacciatori after trying to re-create my Grandmother’s recipe from memory and forgot the bay leaves. My question is: can you leave them in too long? In other words, in a long simmering dish, say, 3 hours or more, can bay leaves stop giving their normal flavor and become bitter or nasty in some way that detracts from their flavor? Or do they just become inert when their flavor has been extracted?

    • Heather Solos on May 31, 2016 at 5:45 am

      I have never noticed a bitterness when using bay leaves in long-simmering items. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but that if it does, it became part of the complex flavor profile of this type of dish. I don’t think if it does occur that it would be as noticeable as over-extraction in coffee. I hope that helps!

  2. Tera on January 17, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Thanjs so much for tge bay leaf info. I was a lil intimidated by tgeses suckers. I had a high quality package of them, but tgey just set tgere starring at me. Im going to add them to tge mentioned Heatgers pot roast.

  3. Yvonne on January 8, 2016 at 5:33 am

    Shannon Lush, Australian diva on household stains and other disasters recommends placing several bay leaves throughout your kitchen cupboards to kill pantry moths. She would know with all their creepy crawlies…

    I can personally attest that this works. I had an infestation of them a couple of years ago for the first time – yuk!
    I saw a few moths on the wing a few weeks ago and I sprayed them, but definitely none in my cupboards…..

    I think it must have an effect on other bugs too within a confined space.

  4. Allie on June 28, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Is it safe for me to make my own “bay leaf powder” (i.e. grind bay leaves in my spice grinder)? I found a recipe to make my own Old Bay seasoning which called for it.

    • Bobbie on June 28, 2015 at 1:56 pm

      Yes, Allie, just make sure you grind them finely to a powder. The only safety issue with bay leaves is if they’re whole or in large pieces that may cause choking or lacerations due to being a tough leaf.

  5. Elisse on January 29, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Lori Petty said it in Tank Girl 🙂

  6. Lexi on September 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    COME ON PEOPLE, IT WAS AUSTIN POWERS!

  7. Johnny on July 6, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Meant to say, “his early work is sophomoric.”

  8. Johnny on July 6, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    As both a chef and food critic, I had to join in this. Thx for additional ideas with bay leaves. However, as a film buff, the total disregard to Jim Carrey’s acting chops, shows ignorance in that department. Stick to bay leaves and cooking. Yes, his talk work is sophomoric, but he won the golden globe two years in a row, for his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in man on the moon, and the Truman show. Lastly, one of the greatest movies/love stories which was one of the best reviewed movies of 2004, Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. Critics and the world are both wrong?

  9. Pamela on February 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Steve Martin in The Jerk?

  10. Elina on December 21, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    I love bay leaves but I would never actually eat one. It’s good to know that they aren’t toxic though.

  11. gokemon on March 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I put whole Bay Leaves in almost anything going in the crock pot, slow simmer, releases that woody, earthy, “AH, bay leaves” flavor. I go through a bottle of month, and have been thinking for the last year, I got to find these cheaper at the international farmers market kind of place. Soups, stews, stocks, and spaghetti sauce are pretty common places they end up at my house. But I really love how they add to my “Mexican” and Tex-Mex dishes as well. Chili’s, “Spanish rice”, pinto beans, enchilada sauce (ground up fine), as well as most of my Cajun dishes such as http://typeaparent.com/mondays-red-beans-and-rice.html  Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole. As well as in my pickling spice mixes http://typeaparent.com/basic-mixed-pickling-spices.html
     
    I love the Type A Parent site as well, as I write foodie posts there, and love being a DIY, saving money and fun projects.

  12. MrsBYork on January 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I always add a bay leaf to bechamel sauce, and, weird as it sounds, to rhubarb – the “woodsiness” of it is perfect with something so sweet-sharp

  13. Bobbie Laughman on January 16, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Since nobody got my obscure movie reference: I renamed the reader who wrote in with the question using a line from Marathon Man.

    It seemed like a good idea at the time.

  14. Jacqueline on January 16, 2012 at 11:08 am

    I’ve mistakenly pureed bay leaves before. Never been a problem while eating.

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 16, 2012 at 11:17 am

      @Jacqueline No, they shouldn’t be a problem if they’re all ground up – you can buy ground bay leaf, and like I said, it’s one of the ingredients in Old Bay. The problems may come when a whole leaf or a large piece is swallowed.

  15. writercook on January 12, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    I do not get your movie reference, but then you are much more movie savvy than I am. I do get your humor, which I love, and I appreciate you clearing up the bay-leaves-as-potential-poison issue. Now I can stop feeling like I’m taking our lives into my hands every time I drop one in the pot.

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 13, 2012 at 9:17 am

      @writercook

      I remembered you giving this reason during the 4H cooking class, and thinking “Seriously?” but I never followed thru on investigating it fully. Until now.

  16. boydsivu1 on January 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Years ago at a restaurant, my date asked for “coffee with Bailey’s on the side.: After waiting for a long, long time, the waiter proudly present her a cup of coffee with several bay leaves sitting on the saucer. We laughed and left a good tip.

    • Lisa Lisa on May 9, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      That’s funny. The same thing happened to me years ago. Were you my date?

  17. Bobbie Laughman on January 12, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    The names of the readers who send in questions may be changed to protect their privacy and for…other reasons…

  18. SelenaClements on January 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Well, I’m guessing you’re talking about Woody Allen, but all I can think about is Dr Evil talking about mojo, “or what the French call a certain… I don’t know what”.Anywho, thanks for writting this. I never thought I’d laugh about bay leaves. 🙂 (BTW, my hubby used a recipe for bacon wrapped turkey that included bay leaves stuffed in the cavity. Delish!)

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      @SelenaClements

      Woody Allen, no. Dr Evil, no.

      Bacon-wrapped turkey?? YES!!

  19. nickolina on January 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Is your movie reference the Grinch with the roast beast? If so, I only am familiar with the cartoon version & that’d be Boris Karloff narrating.

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm

      @nickolina

      Nope. I don’t consider the cartoon to be a movie. And I refuse to acknowledge the existence of any other version, primarily due to…a certain actor.

      • boydsivu1 on January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm

        @Bobbie Laughman @nickolina Jim Carrey?

  20. hghatcher on January 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

    My mother and I always put a bay leaf in the pot of boiling water for pasta. Pasta without this step now tastes bland to me 🙂

    • nickolina on January 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      @hghatcher

      I will have to try that once I get some bay leaves. I am now curious.

  21. nickolina on January 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Another bay leaf myth question…do they really repel bugs if you put them in stuff?

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      @nickolina

      I’ve been looking for an answer to that question, and the best I can come up with is “Maybe.”

      There are dozenss of anecdotes about using strong-scented herbs to keep away insects, and I’m not one to dismiss anecdotal evidence. But then I found this, from the University of Idaho Extension:

      “Homeowners have used bay leaves, spearmint and

      peppermint gum, and other scented items to repel grain

      insects, with the claim of many years of insect free storage.

      The authors have not experienced good results from

      these repellents in controlled test situations. Therefore,

      we do not recommend reliance upon them.”

      So. There ya go.

  22. nickolina on January 12, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I need to go buy some bay leaves! My mom always put them in beef stew…with rutabaga & turnip.

    • Bobbie Laughman on January 12, 2012 at 9:13 am

      @nickolina

      Want some of my stash? I have lots.

      • nickolina on January 12, 2012 at 9:18 am

        yeah. What a great excuse to visit!

        @Bobbie Laughman

  23. imabug on January 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

    throw a bay leaf into a pot of rice to add a little bit of flavour

    • thatstrueboy on January 15, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      Oh I agree to this. I never cook rice without bay leaf

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