Bay leaves are the foliage of the shrub-like tree, Bay Laurel, botanical name Laurus nobilis, which belongs to the avocado family, Lauraceae. It is important to note that there are three other plants that are referred to and substituted for the Laurel Bay leaf, the Indian, Indonesian and California "Bay" leaf trees. Only the California Bay tree is of the same family as the Laurel. Though similar in appearance, they do not carry the same flavor profiles or culinary attributes.
Growing on exceptionally hardy evergreen shrubs, Bay Leaves can reach heights as tall as twelve meters. The ovate leaves range in lengths from four to ten centimeters long and have a gently waving margin. They are a shade of dark green and with a glossy finish (due to the volatile oil, cineole). Fresh Bay leaves are often more potent than dried leaves, but in either form they offer a woodsy herbal aroma reminiscent of rosemary, pine and citrus. On the palate, they have a subtle resinous quality with notes of mace, cardamom, oregano and thyme.
One of the quintessential ingredients in a cook's arsenal as they have become a backbone of cuisines from all over the world. This is because no other ingredient can replicate the bay leaf's culinary virtues. Bay leaves contain the volatile compound, estragole, which provokes a soothing element to balance heat and spice while also adding depth by enhancing the perception of acidity and savory components of a dish. Bay leaves are a fixture in classic stocks, sauces, soups and stews. They become a trifecta ingredient alongside garlic and olive oil when preparing slow cooked legumes and meats as well as pan-fried seafood such as shrimp and white fish. Crushed Bay leaves impart more flavor than whole, yet they should applied within a tea infuser or cheese cloth. Fresh Bay leaves will provide more flavor than dried Bay leaves.