Bay leaves are frequently called for in simmered sauces and soups, but what do they add to these dishes? "Bay adds a certain something that tends not to be obvious unless overdone, but I miss its essence if it's not there," says bushwickgirl.
There are two kinds of bay leaves available. Most cooks prefer bay laurel (often called Turkish bay leaves) to California bay (Umbellularia californica), which is much more potent and can impart a menthol-like note. Fresh bay laurel leaves "have such a lovely, complex scent, different from the dry leaves, and so much nicer than the California bay which is almost medicinal," says Karen_Schaffer. If you are using California bay, it is recommended to use half the amount called for because of the leaves' strength.
In order to learn what bay leaves give to food, "I recommend boiling one leaf in a cup of water, not to cook with but simply to experience its pure flavor and aroma without other additions," says eclecticsynergy. eight_inch_pestle suggests tearing a fresh bay leaf in half and adding it to the melting butter in which you scramble eggs. "So good, and with nothing else but butter and salt and egg in the pan you can't miss the bay," he says.
While some recipes call for adding bay leaves at a later point, hotoynoodle suggests cooking them with a fat at the beginning: "This will allow the oils and esters in the leaves to be released."
Discuss: One Bay Leaf Question