by Kelly Conaboy
Maybe you’ve had this experience: You throw a bay leaf into a broth, and it doesn’t do anything. Then you throw the rest of the bay leaves you bought into the broth, too, because you only bought them for this, and you’ll be damned if you don’t taste a bay leaf, and they don’t do anything, either. What could be the cause of this? I’ll tell you. Bay leaves are bullshit.
What does a bay leaf taste like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf smell like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf look like? A leaf. How does a bay leaf behave? It behaves as a leaf would, if you took a leaf from the tree outside of your apartment building and put it into your soup. People say, “Boil a bay leaf in some water and then taste the water if you want to know what a bay leaf tastes like.”
In search of confirmation, as well as freedom to ignore the bay leaf portion of future recipes I might encounter, I reached out to a number of chefs and asked them, “Are bay leaves bullshit?”
Chef Anna Klinger, of Park Slope’s Al Di La, said: “I like them and use quite a bit.”
Anna Klinger and I are not technically friends so I do not take this lie personally, and I appreciate the way she did not explicitly state on record that bay leaves are not bullshit. Sneaky.
Chef Matty Bennett, of the Lower East Side’s The Lucky Bee, said: “People don’t realize the flavour they add. Stale bay leaves that sit in your cupboard for months aren’t gonna help you at all. If you can find fresh bay leaves that’s the way to go!”
Huh. Fresh bay leaves are the way to go where, I wonder. An empty place? A concrete room that you thought was empty until you notice a couple sharp pieces of scrap metal in the corner and then you think, wait a second — what kind of room is this?
John Connolly, general manager of Williamsburg’s Marlow & Sons and Diner, said: “Fresh bay leaves are legit. And you can quote me on that.” And then he said, “Even the dried stuff isn’t bad as long as it isn’t too old. It gets stale.”
John. Yeah right!
Chef Joseph Brancaccio, of Windsor Terrace’s Brancaccio’s, said: “Sorry, Kelly, they’re not bullshit. Chicken soup, rice pilaf. I watched my grandmother use them. Taste the difference by cutting one in half in your cooking. Kale, on the other hand, is bullshit.”
I love Joe’s sandwiches, but it is unsettling to find out that he would lie about bay leaves with such ease to me, a valued customer.
A PR rep for Harlem’s The Cecil said: “The chef uses them in his brines and stocks along with curry leaves. Do you want more info or are you looking for a chef who also thinks they’re bullshit?”
I’m simply looking for a chef who is willing to be honest with me about bay leaves.
Chef Emily Elsen, of Gowanus pie shop Four & Twenty Blackbirds, said: “I personally like bay leaves — and particularly when stewing beans, meats, etc. They add an earthy, bitter note that is distinct. I prefer to use fresh foraged bay leaves when I can get them, which have a stronger, bolder flavor and are unique.”
You know what else has an earthy, bitter note? Lies — to someone who could have potentially been your friend! — about bay leaves.
Chef Anthony Bourdain, some famous chef, said: “Count me in the ‘yes’ team. I DO use bay leaves. And yes, they are important. Particularly for cream sauces and poaching liquid (court bouillons) for fish. I can understand how some would feel they get lost in more forceful dishes like beef stew — but I think they add something. Color me old school.”
I’ll certainly color Anthony Bourdain one thing: a liar.
Chef Sohui Kim, of Gowanus’s Insa, said: “It’s easy to think that bay leaves might be bullshit. It’s usually dried, brittle, and smelling in its form doesn’t impress. But I do think that it is a potent form of aromatic, very necessary for soups stews and braises. Much like using one piece of anchovy in a pasta sauce, undetectable to to eye or even to the taste buds but packs a real je ne sais quoi, umami punch. In long slow cooking forms, I firmly believe in the power of the bay leaf. Storage is important so that it keeps its flavor. I always keep fresh ones in the refrigerator or dried ones in the freezer.”
I appreciate Sohui’s acknowledgment that it’s easy to think bay leaves might be bullshit. It’s easy to think a lot of things that are plainly true, even if a number of chefs are attempting to gaslight the public about them, as if we are unable to draw accurate conclusions from our experiences.
Chef Joey Baldino, of Collingswood, NJ’s Zeppoli, said: “For southern Mediterranean cooking I think the bay leave are great. They give a depth of flavor that you can’t get with any other herbs especially in fish dishes …I use bay leaves in almost everything I cook with here at Zeppoli. I prefer the fresh but dried are just as good!!! Also, if you put a bay leaf in your homemade breadcrumbs it will help them last longer, an old Sicilian lady showed me that trick and works great.”
I’m not making homemade breadcrumbs, Joey!!!!! You liar!!!!!!!!!!!!
Chef Paul Giannone, of Greenpoint’s Paulie Gee’s, said: “I don’t have an opinion nor do I know much about bay leaves, but unless they eat them I’m sure bulls don’t shit them.”
I truly do not have time for jokes.
Chef Kate Jacoby, of Philadephia’s Vedge, said: “We definitely use bay leaves here at Vedge and at our other restaurant V Street. I’ve worked with them a little bit in pastry. Funny story, we had a person prepping a kaffir lime ice cream base, and they mistakenly used bay leaves. It was actually pretty tasty. But the bulk of our bay leaves are used in savory preparations.”
My impression of the person prepping the ice cream base: “Dunno why Kate wants this leaf in here…”
Chef Rich Landau, Chef Kate Jacoby’s husband who is also of Vedge, said: “Sorry, but bullshit they are not — in my opinion. I truly love bay leaves, they are irreplaceable in stocks as they lend a deeper, savory, herbal element that fresh herbs don’t. When simmered in a tomato sauce they have a bright green citrusy note that lightens everything up and adds dimension. One rule though, and this is where most people go wrong, they must be fresh. Because dry bay leaf is indeed bullshit.”
Wow, an explosive admission from Kate’s husband Rich: “…bay leaf is…bullshit.”
Josh Richards, General Manager at the East Village’s 00 + Co, said: “HAHA, wow! What a question! I personally seem to think that they impart a lot to a dish when there’s enough liquid in the dish, but maybe I’m just crazy. I’ll pass your question along to our Chef de Cuisine and see if I can’t get you an answer from him. Good luck on your bay leaf crusade!”
Chef Hannah Lyons, of Williamsburg’s St. Anselm, said: “Yes! Bay leaves are not bullshit!! Heat up a cup of water with bay leaves and compare the taste to a cup of water without bay leaves. The difference in flavor is bay leaves.”
Haha. Based on her response I enjoy Hannah as a person but I worry about entering into friendship with a liar.
Chef Matthew D’Ambrosio, of the Upper East Side’s Amali, said: “Bay leaves are a great under-utilized spice. It’s the primary ingredient in the cure we use here and at Amali Mou, we love laurel. Anything but bullshit! It has a very rich history in culinary tradition… And ceremonies, i.e. Ancient Rome and Greece… I could not imagine not having bay leaves to cook with.”
Here’s how I imagine it. You have a pot of soup on the stove and you go to your spice area and you think, “Man, I’m glad this area isn’t cluttered up with any shitty leaves. Shitty stupid garbage leaves. Little waste of money green things that make you feel crazy. Like leaves from a tree outside, and you throw them in for no reason. Thank god!”
Chef Ryan Angulo, of Carroll Gardens’ Buttermilk Channel, said: “Bay leaves. I’ve had people bring this up before when a chef throws one bayleaf into a stock pot that could fit a horse. They have a a fairly strong flavor so too many in a stock or sauce can really be overpowering and disgusting, like brewing strong tea. One or two add something subtle that you might not be able to pick when they are in a recipe but might be the ingredient that makes you think‘something’s missing’ when omitted.
“Most people don’t realize it is also used ground in spice mixes. Old Bay wouldn’t be Old Bay without bay leaf.
“Those are my thoughts. I would have to say ‘no’ on the bullshit. It’s not like the cork thrown in when cooking octopus.”
“It’s not like the cooork thrown in when cooooking octopuuuus.” — me mocking Ryan rudely but pretty much he deserves it.
Chef Rachael Polhill, of Greenwich Village’s Dante, said: “I think it’s bullshit to put one piece in every stock, sauce or braise and think that makes all the difference, we as chefs do it almost automatically. But as a flavour in their own right I think it’s amazing. It’s truly unique not spicy, but fragrant almost floral and has great versatility for sweet and savory applications.”
Chef Claire Welle, of Clinton Hill’s Tilda All Day, said: “This is a question with a few answers.
“Let me start with, if you’re not searching out the best products that are available to you as a cook, then you’re already setting yourself up for failure. The bay leaves sitting in your spice cabinet from 1994 are going to give fresh bay leaves a bad rap. There are too many wonderful purveyors of fresh herbs to continue to use mainstream dried products.
“Second, flavors like bay leaves are rooted deep in memories and tradition. Most commonly used in soups, sauces and stocks they are tied to Sunday dinners and long awaited feasts. They are the foundation of a great sauce, and can help highlight base flavors. Being from Maryland, bay leaf is an integral part of our regional cooking.
“In short, stop using bad products and you’ll realize that every ingredient brings something to a dish. Hope that helps.”
Photo by Lindsey Turner