Bay leaves come from the laurel tree and are used as a herb in cooking. They are dried for this purpose. The leaves are oval, pointed and smooth, dark green and shiny on top and lighter underneath when fresh. Dried leaves are duller and lighter in colour. If a leaf is brown in colour, then it will have lost its flavour.
They are aromatic and have a distinctive flavour and fragrance, which is pungent, sharp and bitter. The smell of bay leaves is stronger than the taste. The fresh leaves are very mild and do not develop their full flavour until several weeks after picking and drying.
Bay leaves were used for flavouring by the ancient Greeks although the bay tree is indigenous to what is today the area of Turkey and Armenia. It spread from there throughout the Mediterranean and other areas with a similar climate.
Bay (or laurel) was greatly prized in the Roman Empire and Greece and was worn as wreaths. According to mythology it was associated with honour and glory. Bacca laureate means laurel berries which signifies the completion of a bachelor degree.
Uses for bay leaves
Bay leaves are used widely in many forms of cuisine and most recipes require dried leaves.
The leaves are not normally eaten but put into dishes during cooking or simmering to impart their flavour and aroma and then removed before the dish is eaten.
In Indian and Pakistani cooking bay leaves are sometimes used instead of India bay leaves, but they have a different flavour. Indian Bay leaves give a taste more similar to cinnamon.
They are most often used in biriyani dishes and as one of the ingredients of garam masala.
Ground bay leaves can be substituted for whole leaves and therefore do not need to be removed before eating the dish, but it is much stronger so less will be required.
Medicinal uses for bay leaves
Bay leaves can be used in pantries and store cupboards to keep away cockroaches, moths, silverfish and mice. This is because its acid content is thought to give it insecticidal qualities.
Bay oil is used as liniment for sprains and strains and is also used to reduce bruising.
It has also been used as a remedy for headaches and is thought to be an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Some studies suggest it can help with reducing blood sugar levels and has also been used in the management of stomach ulcers, and as an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compound.
There is some evidence to suggest it may be effective in treating rheumatism, amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) and colic.