If you have prepared slow-cooked recipes before, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with the bay leaf.
While you might not be able to identify its subtle flavor in a dish, bay leaves have a place in savory recipes from around the globe, including Chinese recipes.
What Is Bay Leaf?
There are several types of bay leaf (yuèguì yè, 月桂叶 or xiāng yè, 香叶), most of which come from the Lauraceae or laurel family of evergreen plants. The herb may also be referred to as bay laurel, sweet bay, or Roman laurel.
The most common form is botanically known as Laurus nobilis, and the leaves of this evergreen plant are typically harvested and dried for use as an aromatic in many cuisines, including Chinese, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, and Latin American.
Did You Know?
Today, much of the world’s supply of bay leaves is produced in Turkey and the Mediterranean.
Most recipes call for dried bay leaf, which generally yields a stronger and more complex flavor profile than its fresh counterpart. The aroma of bay leaf is pleasantly herbal––reminiscent of oregano and thyme––with a slightly menthol-like taste.
Fresh bay leaf can also be purchased for culinary use, but it is not equivalent to the dried version.
Note that in the United States, fresh bay leaf found in grocery stores is often California bay leaf (Umbellularia californica) rather than L. nobilis, the dried version usually found in the spice aisle. This type has a stronger menthol flavor and it can overpower a dish if too much is added.
How Is Bay Leaf Used?
In Chinese cooking, whole dried bay leaves are often added to soups, stews, and slow-cooked braised dishes (also known as lu wei).
The herbal flavor of the bay leaves is by no means the star of a recipe, but it definitely enhances the overall aroma and flavor of meat and vegetables.
We use bay leaf in some of our favorite hearty braised noodle recipes like Spicy Beef Noodle Soup and Braised Beef Noodle Soup.
For these dishes, we typically make a homemade spice packet with bay leaves and other aromatics like star anise and dried tangerine peel. The spice packet makes it easier to remove these ingredients from the dish before serving.
Just tie the spices up in a bit of cheesecloth and toss the packet into the pot. Then turn down the heat and allow the ingredients to simmer. Your kitchen will fill with an absolutely tantalizing aroma. Having patience is worth it for the resulting depth of flavor!
Bay leaf is frequently added to spicy Sichuan dishes like Ma La Xiang Guo, or “spicy numbing stir-fry pot.” This tasty mixture has recently become very popular in restaurants across China.
We also love to fry a few bay leaves with cinnamon, dried red chilies, ginger, and other spices to infuse the oil for our Sichuan Hot Pot soup base.
We also like to use bay leaf in to flavor the marinade for Asian pickled vegetables, like Pickled Cucumbers or Pickled Cabbage, which make an excellent appetizer or side dish.
Of course, bay leaf is by no means reserved for Chinese recipes. We use bay leaves in many of our other favorite recipes inspired by cuisine from around the world. Try our Pork Adobo (a Filipino classic) and Judy’s Spanish Chicken Stew.
Buying & Storing Bay Leaf
You can purchase dried bay leaves in the spice section of most grocery stores. You can also buy it in bulk online.
Bay leaves should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place like your spice cabinet or pantry. They will keep at best quality for up to a year. Storing bay leaves in the freezer can help retain their potency for a longer period of time.