A bay leaf is a bay leaf, right? Oh, if it was only that easy!
If you read recipes, you’ve likely seen mention of Turkish (at left in photo) and California bay leaves (at right in photo). The Turkish bay leaf is considered the true bay leaf, Laurus nobilis. Even though the bay laurel tree grows around the Mediterranean, the best leaves are thought to come from Turkey.
Things get complicated with the California bay leaf, Umbellularia californica. While it’s a completely different plant, the leaves are surprisingly similar in shape. Where they differ is in color and flavor. The California bay is not only greener, it’s a lot more pungent, with a distinct menthol wallop. That’s why some recipes recommend using one-third to one-half of a California leaf in place of a whole Turkish one.
That information is helpful only if you know what kind of bay leaf you’ve got. And that’s where the consumer is left stranded. Most brands in the supermarket don’t state the leaves’ origin on the label. In e-mails and calls to several companies, I learned that McCormick and Frontier source theirs solely from Turkey, while Spice Islands and Morton & Bassett bottle California leaves (Spice Islands does label theirs).
Because the California ones are so strong, too many can overpower a dish. If you aren’t sure what you’ve got, your best bet is to check the company’s website, or buy from an online merchant who makes the distinction.
So what type of bay leaf do you prefer?