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So, What Does a Bay Leaf Do?

Bay leafs sit in a small wooden bowl.

The bay leaf is a staple in many chef’s spice cabinets, often lounging behind the oregano and paprika, waiting for its moment of simmering glory. But what’s the real deal with these green little leaves?

They sneak into our stews and soups, but are they just culinary stowaways or secret flavor agents enhancing our meals? Are they a must-have ingredient or can you do without them?

If you’ve ever casually dismissed the bay leaf, shrugged nonchalantly at its mention in a recipe, or boldly opted to ignore its presence – sidestepping the spice aisle altogether, then you’re about to embark on a leafy revelation. From subtle soups to hearty stews, the mysterious spice is something you might want to start paying attention to.

What Does Bay Leaf Do?

Bay leaves are stored in a glass jar and set on top of a counter.

Bay leaves: those seemingly unassuming specks of green that recipe gurus always nudge us to toss into our simmering pots. But why? What does bay leaf do exactly?

Bay leaves take your cooking concoctions and gently infuse them with an added layer of warmth and aroma. They’re all about enhancing what’s already there, helping the other ingredients to shine their brightest and taste their best. Essentially, adding a bay leaf to your recipe will bring out the flavors you’re already cooking with so that your dish isn’t bland.

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What Does Bay Leaf Taste Like

A bay leaf sits atop of bowl of tomato soup.
Danny E Hooks/Shutterstock.com

Bay leaves have a distinct taste, imagine a blend of your favorite herbs—a little bit of thyme, a dash of oregano—and throw in an unexpected peppermint-piney twist.

When they’re mixed into your broth or spaghetti sauce, a mild, mint-like flavor (kind of like the love child of spearmint and menthol) unfolds, with some traces of pepper and an inviting, Christmas tree pine essence. It’s like a subtle herbal hug or strong tea that prevents heavy dishes from feeling, well, too hearty. Using a bay leaf is a good way to balance out a meal and essentially make sure it’s not too dense. They work great in bay leaf spaghetti sauce, soups, stews, and anything saucy!

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How Do You Use Bay Leaf

A woman holds a bundle of bay leaves in her hand.
Michele Caldarisi/Shutterstock.com

Luckily, using a bay leaf is extremely easy. Really, all you need to do is grab one (or a couple) and toss them in your dish. Whether you’re making a slow-simmered soup, a hearty stew, or a rich pasta sauce, as the dish bubbles and cooks away, these leaves are silently unleashing their herbal magic, steeping your creation with their gentle, aromatic essence.

As the wise folks at SPICEography point out, bay leaves shine in those slow-cooked, simmer-for-hours kind of dishes. The lengthier they can steep and mingle with the other ingredients, the more their mild, distinctive flavor gets a chance to infuse your creation.

The takeaway? Start early with the bay leaf for a slow, flavor-enhancing journey in your long-cooked dishes.

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Are There Bay Leaf Substitutes?

margouillat photo/Shutterstock

Hold the panic if you’ve dived hand-first into your spice drawer mid-cook, only to realize that you’re bay leaf-less.

Luckily, your stew is not doomed. If you have thyme, oregano, or even basil hanging around your kitchen, you can add them in as a bay leaf substitute. They won’t bring the exact same flavor to the pot, but they’ll swing in with their own aromatic charm, saving your dish from a fate of blandness and giving it a somewhat similar herbal taste.

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What Happens If You Eat a Bay Leaf

A person drops a bay leaf into a pot of soup.
Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock.com

In the unlikely event that a bay leaf makes its way from the pot to your plate, don’t stress! While its sharp, stiff texture is a bit bitter and isn’t what we’d call a culinary delight (think leaf-crunching instead of pleasant munching), it’s perfectly safe to consume. Most people simply prefer to avoid the unexpected texture surprise in their mouthful of soup or stew and remove it before serving the dish.

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The bay leaf is a kitchen staple that helps make your dish more flavorful. While missing one won’t send your meal into a tailspin, having one on hand will tie together flavors and add a lightness to those hearty, slow-cooked meals. So, whether it’s dancing through your dishes or awaiting its next simmering showcase in your spice rack, the bay leaf definitely deserves a spot on your shopping list and should be an essential ingredient lounging in your spice cabinet.

Courtney Marie L. Courtney Marie L.
Courtney Marie is a bookworm who loves spending time at the beach. She enjoys bargain hunting and, of course, writing. When she’s not working, she's on the lookout for the latest sweepstakes to feature on her website, snipon.com. You can connect with her on LinkedIn. Read Full Bio »
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