When you cook adobo, menudo or even tomato-based pasta sauce in the Philippines, it is customary to add a piece or two of bay leaf. Why? What does bay leaf impart?
Bay leaf is Laurus nobilis
First, a clarification. I remember once, long ago, when commenting was still on in all my blogs, I posted a recipe with photos, the recipe ingredients included laurel and a reader commented, quite indignantly, that the photo showed bay leaves and not laurel.
In the Philippines, bay leaf is laurel. Laurus nobilis, if we have to be scientific about the classification. It is a plant that grows profusely in the Mediterranean region, and it’s been growing there since the beginning of recorded history.
You know those crown of leaves worn in ancient Greece and Rome? Those were made with laurel leaves.
It was the Spaniards who introduced bay leaves to the Philippines. So, the bay leaf we cook with is laurel.
So, laurel is the more accurate term to use to refer to the leaves we add to our adobo and other stews because bay leaf can refer to other plants such as Indian bay leaf, Indonesian bay leaf and Mexican bay leaf which are not Laurus nobilis.
It is laurel that we use in Filipino cooking.
How to use bay leaf in cooking
Bay leaf (laurel) is highly aromatic. You add it to soups and stews, and it imparts a subtly floral fragrance.
You don’t eat bay leaf whole though. It’s bitter and fibrous. In fact, when added to food during cooking, the bay leaf which has already served its purpose of adding fragrance to the food, is usually removed and discarded before the dish is served. You can leave it there, actually, but someone might accidentally eat it and that is not going to be a tasty experience.
Buying bay leaves
So, how do you tell if the packet of bay leaves you just bought is, in fact, laurel? Well, unless you’re a botanist, you can’t. As consumers, we all rely on what’s written on the label.
Will it make a lot of difference if the bay leaf we use is really Indian bay leaf, Indonesian bay leaf or Mexican bay leaf? All three are also aromatic but in different ways.
Storing bay leaves
Bay leaves, or laurel, are more aromatic when dried. And that’s how it’s sold, mostly. You won’t be using an entire packet for a single dish because you only need a piece or two. That’s how potent they are.
What is left in the packet, you can transfer to a jar with a tight cap. Keep in the pantry, away from the sun, and use within a month. After that, they start losing their aroma.
For best results, drop a piece of silica gel in the jar with the bay leaves. This is especially useful in regions where humidity is oppressively high. The silica gel will absorb moisture that will prevent molds from forming.