Tag Archives: Spice History

Are Bay Leaves REALLY Necessary?

It comes up as a topic in kitchens all the time.

Are Bay Leaves REALLY necessary? Or are they just a time-honored tradition?

Do we stock them on our shelves, then put them in our recipes because they truly add a valuable flavor? Or, because the recipe says to.

Are they worth the effort? The cost? Do they make a difference at all?

Would anyone really notice if they weren’t there?

To that point, there are Chefs who would argue that adding Bay Leaves to most (if not all) recipes is like putting flowers on a grave.

They don’t do much for the deceased, but it makes you feel good that you did it anyway.

Is that true? Or, are they turning a blind eye, (or palate), to the fact that Bay Leaves are a legitimate, “go to” seasoning herb?

Granted, Bay Leaves, added to a recipe, aren’t going to bludgeon your palate, like say for instance, oregano or rosemary can.

Generally speaking, Bay Leaves DO add a subtle, but ever so noticeable background nuance, when added in the correct proportion to the remaining seasonings and ingredients in your recipes.

It might be likened to adding vanilla extract to a chocolate recipe. You only “seem” to taste the chocolate, but the vanilla is there lurking just below your taste perception of it, melding into the homogenous whole and rounding out the flavor.

You couldn’t admit to actually tasting the vanilla but you might likely notice its absence if it was omitted.

The chocolate wouldn’t quite taste the same.

Much is the same for Bay Leaves, especially when added to a medley of other more prominent herbs and spices in a recipe.

Could it be that the lack of their flavor contribution is more a factor of the lack of adding the necessary amount to be noticed.

What are Bay Leaves and how are they used?

Bay Leaves come from the Bay Laurel plant, which is classified as an evergreen and grow in warmer climates.

DRIED BAY LEAVES

They can be purchased and used fresh, dried, whole or ground. You can also purchase fresh leaves and dry them yourself, which typically takes about 4 weeks. From there, it’s best to store your newly dried leaves in a zip lock bag away from light and excessive heat.

FRESH BAY LEAVES

Most recipes which use Bay Leaves are for stocks, soups, sauces and stews. All of which are generally slow cooked which bring out the herbaceous aromas and flavors in Bay Leaves, that most would compare to oregano and thyme with just a hint of mint and spice.

From a use perspective, Bay Leaves should be added at the beginning of the recipe to allow the maximum amount of time for the leaves to release their flavors into the liquid. Much like making tea.

Unlike many herbs and spices which are actually consumed while enjoying the dish, whole bay leaves are removed from the finished recipes and discarded, leaving behind their contribution of savory goodness melded into the liquids.

Factoids:

  • Worn as a woven leaf “crown” to signify honor and success by Emperors, Olympian athletes, poets and scholars, laurel, the name of the plant, worked its way into our everyday vocabulary.
  • Upon successful completion of a 4-year college degree, you earn a baccalaureate, which translated, is: “berries of laurel,”
  • And the supreme honor of Poet Laureate, to someone who composes poems for special occasions.

There are 2 distinctive types of Bay Leaves.

  1. California (Which are mostly sold fresh and which are more potent). If using fresh Bay Leaves, use about half the amount the recipe calls for.
  2. Mediterranean (Which are sold as dry whole leaves or ground). These are the “standard” Bay Leaves in almost every kitchen.

Other popular varieties of Mediterranean Bay Leaves come  from West India, Indonesia and Mexico.

The current inventory of Bay Leaves at The Red Goose Spice company is a marvelously aromatic one sourced from India.

So, what conclusions can be drawn?

Bay Leaves, when still volatile, used in recipes correctly, and in their recommended amount, certainly add a distinctive flavor and aroma that only Bay Leaves can offer.

The key, is volatility as many kitchens use this herb so infrequently that it has lost much of its potency when called upon.

The Red Goose Spice Company recommends that you to buy Bay Leaves in whatever quantity necessary to use your inventory within 12 months of purchase to maintain their unique flavors and maximize their herbaceous contributions to your favorite dishes.

They’ll do a lot for your recipes make you feel good at the same time.

How Herbs de Provence Came To Be

Herbs and spices are simply amazing. Each one of them has a history and a story all their own.

Singularly, historians can trace back the origins and uses of nearly each and every herb or spice we use today, going back thousands of years

Commercially produced herb and spices blends however, are a much more recent thing. Often, the bi-product of convenience. Curry Powder is a good example.  (See Red Goose Blog: Curry in a Hurry)

From ancient times, until a few centuries ago, you pretty much had to buy each and every individual herb or spice you used in your dishes. There were no “blends”.  When it came to making a recipe with multiple herbs and spices, you pulled them all out of your pantry, added each one to your dish or ground them together in a mortar and pestle in whatever proportion you desired.

No Chili Powder, no Curry Powder, no “Italian” Herbs Blend, no Herbs de Provence.

Even if you love to cook, there are a couple of down-sides to making your own blends.

Besides needing to have all the individual components available (and fresh), each and every time you make a blend, there is the likely lack of consistency of flavor every time you make it.

As a result, herb and spice blends are, generally speaking, a very good thing. And each has a history all their own.

Take Herbs de Provence for example, one of the more unusual herb and spice blends.

Everyone loves a good story. This one however, doesn’t date back to ancient times.

Its name and the popularity of Herbs de Provence isn’t attributed to some famous French Chef, but rather to a popular American Celebrity Chef, who lived in France for a time and wrote one of the most widely known, and used, cookbooks on the planet.

Julia Child and her best-selling, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961.

This wildly successful book, considered by many to be one of the most influential cookbooks ever published, included a sauteed chicken dish using an herb and spice blend she named: “Poulet Sauté aux Herbes de Provence”.

The rest, as they say, is culinary history.

The usual suspects (plus one)

Before blends, and before Herbs de Provence had an “official” name, those who enjoy preparing the regional cuisine of Southern French needed to have these classic herbs and spices always at the ready, most of which, happen to be cultivated in Southern France. They are: Oregano, Thyme, Savory, Rosemary, and perhaps some Fennel, Tarragon, Bay Leaf, or Chervil if you are making one of the more unique blends.

There wasn’t, (and still isn’t), a “true” recipe for the exact  proportions of each ingredient in Herbs de Provence however the earliest “recipe”, believed to be its ancestor, used nearly equal parts of just 4 herbs. Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary and Savory.

So, you just started there.

This blend, you might notice, lacked the one spice that everyone now identifies it by, and that is, lavender, which Southern France’s is famous for, and which both the locals, and tourists, love.

Lavender

It started to appear in later adaptations of Herbs de Provence and then became quite popular, especially in America.

Lavender gives Herbs de Provence its uniquely perfumed aroma, it’s alluring taste and adds a hint of French romance to what otherwise would be a blend which could just as easily be perceived as Italian.

A dish using Herbs de Provence is unmistakable in any recipe it is used in.

However, as the Herbs de Provence blend became more popular, even those in a professional kitchen, had to keep ALL of these individual herbs and spices in their pantry AND fresh, and then measure them precisely each time to obtain a consistent result. Oh, and by the way, lavender seeds aren’t exactly cheap, so unless you’re making this blend a lot, why would you want to have lavender seeds in your pantry?

Kind of a pain.

As expected, it didn’t take long for the purveyors of herbs and spices to seize the opportunity to provide various versions of an Herbs de Provence blend to both the retail and commercial markets.

So, just how is Herbs de Provence used?

Herbs de Provence is extremely versatile. It pairs well with chicken, pork, lamb, fish, vegetables, on salads, salad dressings, even omelets!

Recipes using Herbs de Provence include cooking methods such as sauteing, braising, grilling and roasting. It can be uses as a rub before cooking, added to a liquid or sauce during cooking or even as a topping to a salad or pizza.

Classically, beyond proteins, it pairs well with tomatoes, olives and olive oils, cheeses, root vegetables and many Mediterranean dishes which its why you’ll often see it used in Ratatouille, Tapenades and rustic vegetable stews. You’ll also find it gives off a remarkably fragrant smoke if you moisten it and sprinkle it over coals while grilling.

Whether you currently use Herbs de Provence in your cuisine or, you’d like to explore the amazing versatility of this amazing blend enjoyed by so many foodies on BOTH side of the “pond”, The Red Goose Spice Company has a marvelous version available for immediate delivery to your kitchens.

As Julia Child would say as she ended each and every one of her TV shows…”Bon Appetite!”