Bay leaf is an aromatic herb that is commonly used in cooking and have a long history, originating as an ornamental symbol of honor and success, and worn by Roman and Greek emperors, as well as Olympians, scholars, heroes, and poets. Bay leaf is rich in antioxidants, minerals and fibres, giving it the ability to promote overall health. They also have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and are thus cherished as herbal medicine against numerous diseases for thousands of years.
Apart from culinary and medicinal uses, bay leaves can be burned, which is said to produce smoke that offers a range of health benefits. Just as we typically burn incense sticks, bay leaves are also burned in homes and places of worship as a part of spiritual rites and rituals. The bay leaf is believed to contain a multitude of chemicals that are released on burning and are beneficial to the body.
Anxiety relief is touted as a major benefit of bay leaf burning. The combination of chemicals (specifically the chemical linalool) in the leaves creates smoke that, when inhaled, calms the body and the mind. According to the theory behind aromatherapy, inhaling certain fragrances prompts olfactory (smell) receptors in your nose to communicate with the areas of your brain that help regulate your emotions.
Bay leaves come from several plants, such as:
- Bay laurel: Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in cooking for their distinctive flavour and fragrance. The leaves should be removed from the cooked food before eating. The leaves are often used to flavour soups, stews, braises and pâtés in many countries. The fresh leaves are very mild and do not develop their full flavour until several weeks after picking and drying.
- California bay leaf: The leaf of the California bay tree also known as California laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood, is similar to the Mediterranean bay laurel, but contains the toxin umbellulone which can cause methemoglobinemia.
- Indian bay leaf: Differs from bay laurel leaves, which are shorter and light to medium green in colour, with one large vein down the length of the leaf. Indian bay leaves are about twice as long and wider, usually olive green in colour and have three veins running the length of the leaf. Culinarily, Indian bay leaves are quite different, having a fragrance and taste similar to cinnamon bark, but milder.
- Indonesian bay leaf or Indonesian laurel is not commonly found outside Indonesia; this herb is applied to meat and, less often, to rice and to vegetables.
- West Indian bay leaf, the leaf of the West Indian bay tree is used culinarily (especially in Caribbean cuisine) and to produce the cologne called bay rum.
An aromatic bay leaf can be used whole, either dried or fresh in cooking. But it is removed from the dish before consumption and less commonly used in ground form. If eaten whole, bay leaves are pungent and have a sharp, bitter taste. As with many spices and flavourings, the fragrance of the bay leaf is more noticeable than its taste. When the leaf is dried, the aroma is herbal, slightly floral, and somewhat similar to oregano and thyme.
Bay leaves should be added at the beginning of cooking as the longer they simmer, the more time they have to release flavor and allow it to infuse the dish. But many cooks believe that bay leaves don’t contribute any taste at all. But while others find the herb adds a subtle depth of flavor.
In Indian cuisine, they are most often used in rice dishes like biryani and as an ingredient in garam masala. Bay leaves were also used for flavouring by the ancient Greeks. They are a fixture in the cooking of many European cuisines, as well as in the Americas. They are used in soups, stews, brines, meat, seafood, vegetable dishes, and sauces. The leaves also flavour many classic French and Italian dishes. The leaves are most often used whole and removed before serving (they can be abrasive in the digestive tract). Thai and Laotian cuisine employs bay leaf in a few Arab-influenced dishes, notably massaman curry.
Apart from adding a great flavour and taste to your food, they also facilitate digestion. Also giving relief from abdominal pain, gastrointestinal infections, bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea. In addition, the organic compounds found in bay leaves are beneficial in getting rid of an upset stomach and soothing irritable bowel syndrome.
Regular consumption of bay leaf provides various health benefits, including management of diabetes and protection against oxidative stress. It can act as a diuretic and improve the health of kidneys. They are said to stimulate urination, thus reducing your body’s toxicity. A study suggested that bay leaves can help prevent kidney stones by reducing the amount of urease in the body.
According to a study, bay leaves enhance heart health due to two critical organic compounds, rutin and caffeic. Rutin strengthens the capillary walls of the heart. While caffeic acid plays a role in eliminating LDL or bad cholesterol from the cardiovascular system. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids in the bay help lower blood cholesterol and uric acid levels.
Bay leaf also benefits the respiratory system. The essential oil of bay leaves can be extracted, mixed & applied to chest to help relieve various respiratory infections & disorders. They also provide antimicrobial properties, including antibacterial and antifungal protection. Bay leaves are effective against many infections from fungi, bacteria, and protozoa. Bay leaves can also be used scattered in a pantry to repel meal moths, flies, and cockroaches.
Bay leaf is primarily safe to consume. However, it is essential to discard the leaf from dishes before serving to prevent someone choking on them. Its rigid texture and sharp edges make it difficult to chew and digest. The use of bay leaf should not be for pregnant women. Moreover, consuming large quantities of bay leaves may cause drowsiness. Hence, do not have the entire leaf by mouth.