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Bay Leaves

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2008

What's the difference between Turkish and California bay leaves? How should I store them? Is the best bay leaf fresh or dried?

Turkish vs. California Bay Leaves

Though most of us appreciate the fact that specialty or mail-order spices are crucial for bringing the flavor of ethnic dishes home, we might question why a recipe, say for a simple chicken stock or white sauce, would demand Turkish bay leaves. What are Turkish bay leaves? And what's the alternative? The alternative, as it happens, is the California bay leaf, which is larger and more aromatic than the Turkish. It comes from a shrubby evergreen tree, a different species altogether from the bay, or laurel, tree that produces Turkish bay leaves and grows throughout the Mediterranean. California bay leaves have a potent, eucalyptus-like flavor, whereas Turkish bay leaves have a tea-like, mildly menthol flavor profile.

To get a closer read on the two, we made side-by-side béchamel (white) sauces. Tasters described the sauce made with the California bay leaf as "medicinal" and "potent," "like something you'd put in a cough drop." The sauce made with the Turkish bay leaf, on the other hand, was described as "mild, green, and slightly clove-like" and "far superior in nuance and flavor." Luckily, Turkish bay leaves are quite easy to find, California bay leaves far less so. McCormick, Spice Islands, and Penzeys spice companies all package Turkish bay leaves. Though recipes occasionally specify one or the other, even giving formulas for substitution (the California bays are stronger tasting), we would advise readers against substituting California bay leaves for Turkish and suggest they think hard before mail-ordering California bay leaves for any recipe.

Proper Storage

Not to get too personal, but how old are those bay leaves in your pantry? This key seasoning in many soups, stocks, and sauces is often overlooked, especially when it comes to storage procedures. But these leaves are sold packed by the dozen (and sometimes dozens), and with only one or two leaves used in even the biggest pot of stock, we wondered if the flavor and aroma would dissipate over time-and, if so, whether there was anything we could do to stop it.

We ran tests with a freshly opened package of bay leaves, with bay leaves that had been opened for three months and stored in their original jar (the jar was of course kept closed), and with bay leaves that had been sealed in a freezer-lock storage bag and stored in the freezer for the three months. Two bay leaves of each were simmered in 2 cups of canned chicken broth and tasted for herbal potency. We were amazed by the amount of flavor loss in the leaves that had been left in their original, opened container in the pantry. Enough flavor loss, in fact, that the package of freshly opened bay leaves tasted nearly twice as flavorful. The good news is that there is a way to retain much of the bay flavor. The frozen leaves put out great, assertive bay flavor and aroma, nearly as good as the leaves from the freshly opened jar. Now, right on the freezer shelf along with the bags of nuts, we'll be sure to keep our bay leaves nice and cold.

Fresh vs. Dried Bay Leaves

Fresh bay leaves have become available in many supermarkets. In the test kitchen, we use fresh herbs more often than dried—bay leaves being an exception. To decide whether we should switch, we made two batches of a béchamel sauce, simmering dried bay leaves in one and fresh in the other.

Surprisingly, they finished in a dead heat. Here's why: The aromatic molecules in most herbs are more volatile than water. Herbs that grow in hot, arid environments—like bay leaves—are different: Their aromatic molecules are less volatile, retaining flavor even after water evaporates. Similarly, in long-cooked applications, we've found that rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, and other herbs native to hot, arid environments do as well as their fresh counterparts. (And bay leaves are used only in long-cooked recipes.) Since they are cheaper and keep for months in the freezer, we'll continue to use dried bay leaves (about 10 cents per leaf), instead of springing for fresh, which cost twice as much.