What are Bay Leaves?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Bay leaves, Laurus nobilis, are an herb that's also known as sweet bay, bay laurel, and Turkish bay. The last cognomen is to distinguish it from California bay, which is similar, but distinct — a plant named Umbellularia Californica.

Bay leaves may be used as a roach repellent.
Bay leaves may be used as a roach repellent.

History. Winners of athletic contests in Ancient Greece were crowned with a wreath of laurel or bay leaves. Poets, statesmen, and war heroes of ancient times were so honored as well. Laurel was considered sacred to the god Apollo.

Bay leaves are often used to flavor chicken cacciatore, the well-known Italian stew.
Bay leaves are often used to flavor chicken cacciatore, the well-known Italian stew.

Description. Bay leaves come from an evergreen bush or tree that can grow to a height of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters). The leaves are long and pointed. The plant is native to the Mediterranean.

Gardening. Outdoors, bay trees do best in partial shade. They should be planted in soil with good drainage. They are also grown indoors as house plants, in which case the soil should be rich. The whitish flowers appear in April through May. Leaves may be used fresh or harvested and spread in a dark place to dry.

Food and Other Uses. The taste of bay is described as bitter and pungent, and it ranks at two of ten on the hotness scale. Bay leaves are aromatic when crushed or burned, and they are often left to steep in liquid and removed before serving.

Bay leaves are a traditional ingredient of the French bouquet garnis. They are used in the preparation of meat, game, stuffing, soup, stew, sauces, marinade, and bland vegetables. They are also used in the production of bay rum, which originated in the West Indies; and they are one of the characteristic Cajun spices, along with cayenne, hot pepper sauce, black and white pepper, thyme, and file powder. They are also characteristic of the cuisines of Brazil, Greece, Germany and Eastern Europe, Jamaica, and Scandinavia.

Bay leaves can be used in crafts to make dry topiary and wreaths, and may be used along with other ingredients, such as apples and rose hips, in inclusion candles. They are also used as a filler in sachets. In a different area, this herb is said to be effective as a roach repellent. Powdered berries from the bay tree are used in cosmetics.

Bay leaves may be used in stew and soups.
Bay leaves may be used in stew and soups.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

anon57159

Could I just harvest a few leaves from my neighbor's laurel hedge? Thanks

anon54490

The biggest processor and exporter of Bay Leaves is GNA Foreign Trade in Turkey. They export Bay Leaves in pressed bales and cartons, moq is 1x20ft. container.

anon47602

could you use basil or bay leaf if the recipe calls for either one? Thank you.

anon47601

What is the difference between fresh basil and bay leaves. Thank you.

somerset

Bay leaf is extensively used in the Mediterranean cuisine. It is added to stews and other dishes, but then removed at the end of the cooking process. It adds a unique flavor to the foods. Bay leaf belongs to the same family as avocado and cinnamon.

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