Turkish bay leaves, also called Mediterranean bay leaves, bay laurel or sweet laurel, are the most common kind of bay leaves you can buy.
A similar kind, which has a more intense and slightly minty flavor, is the Californian bay leaf.
Each leaf comes from a different kind of tree. Both kinds can be used fresh or dried in cooking.
There are other kinds of bay leaves, used for many different kinds of cuisine.
Are Turkish Bay Leaves ‘Normal’ Bay Leaves?
The most common kind of bay leaf is the Turkish bay leaf, also called the Mediterranean bay leaf, bay laurel, or sweet laurel. Any recipe from Europe will be referring to this kind of bay leaf. The other kind of bay leaf, especially common in America, is the California bay leaf. This has a much more intense flavor. There are other kinds of bay leaves.
There are Different Kinds of Bay Leaves
Bay leaves have been used in cooking for thousands of years.
The kind used, though, were leaves from the laurel tree (Laurus nobilis).
This tree originated in the Mediterranean Basin, which includes Turkey, and then spread to Europe.
The Greeks and Romans were particularly fond of bay leaves, but for a different reason than cooking.
They would weave crowns from the leaves and branches.
These were given as prizes to the first Olympians, to Emperors and anyone of high status.
All those statues you see of people wearing crowns of leaves are wearing crowns of bay leaves.
They also used bay leaves as a medicinal herb.
The California bay leaf is from the California bay tree (Umbellularia californica).
As its name suggests, it grows in California, as well as Oregon.
It produces leaves longer and thinner than the common Turkish bay leaf. Whether fresh or dried, the flavor is more intense than the Turkish.
The West Indian bay leaf is from the bay rum tree, also called the spice tree and the sweet bay (Pimenta racemose).
This has a flavor much different from California or Turkish.
It tastes more like cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla combined, making it an ideal ingredient for Indian or Caribbean dishes.
The leaves are also used to make cologne. They can also be brewed to make tea.
Other, rarer kinds of bay leaves, are the Indonesian (sourced from more than one tree) and the Mexican (Litsea glaucescens).
How to Know What Bay Leaves are Used in What Recipe
You can tell what bay leaves are used for what recipe depending on where the recipe is from.
Most Western recipes, when calling for bay leaves, mean Turkish bay leaves.
If the recipe calls for Californian bay leaves and you only have Turkish, use twice the amount of Turkish, since Turkish bay leaves have a milder flavor than Californian.
Mexican and Latin American dishes usually mean Mexican bay leaves when they refer to bay leaves for cooking, especially for soups and rice.
This produces a more bitter, oregano-based flavor than either Californian or Turkish.
You can try Californian as a substitute, but it’s not quite the same thing.
Mexican bay leaves are also used in traditional herbal medicine and some religious ceremonies.
West Indian bay leaves are used in Caribbean dishes, but they also work well in Indian dishes.
Their flavor is completely different from any of the other bay leaves.
It’s similar to allspice, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla notes.
You cannot substitute other kinds of bay leaves for West Indian bay leaves.
Indonesian bay leaves are very rare outside of Indonesia. They are mainly used for cooking meats and sometimes vegetables.
Why Bay Leaves Should Be Removed from Food Before Eating
No matter what kind of bay leaf you use, they all have one thing in common – they should not be eaten.
They aren’t poisonous, but they are incredibly tough. Your teeth will not be able to cut them up.
Even if you do swallow one, you still could be in trouble. Bay leaves are large enough to choke you.
If you are lucky enough not to choke, you can still be unlucky enough to have the leaf block up your intestines or another part of your digestive tract.
Blockages like that usually require surgery in order to save your life.
Don’t chop up the bay leaf, because the pieces will cause a gritty texture that’s really unpleasant.
You can also hurt your teeth on the pieces just as much as you can hurt them on the whole leaves.
Using a Spice Sachet
Also called a bouquet garni, this is a little bag you place your herbs and spices in, then quickly remove them before serving up the dish.
This saves you from having to strain soup broth or fish around in a stew hunting for that elusive bay leaf.
You can buy them pre-made or you can make them yourself.
- Cut a 4-inch square of cheesecloth
- Place your bay leaves or any other spices and herbs in the center.
- Bring up the corners to make a pouch
- Tie up the top with 18 inches of butcher’s twine
- Tie the ends of the butcher’s twine to the pot handle, if you have one. If not, at least the bundle is easier to find and fish out than hunting around for bay leaves, peppercorns and anything else.
Frequently Asked Questions About Are Turkish Bay Leaves ‘Normal’ Bay Leaves
Do Fresh Bay Leaves Taste the Same as Dried Bay Leaves?
Fresh bay leaves give off a different flavor than dried bay leaves. No matter if you are using California bay leaves or Turkish bay leaves, dried bay leaves have a more intense flavor than fresh.
Are Bay Leaves Edible?
Bay leaves, whether Turkish, West Indian or Californian, are not poisonous. However, it’s not recommended to eat one, because they are so tough, they could hurt your teeth. You could choke on one if you try to swallow it. A large, tough leaf could also cause a blockage in your digestive tract.
Can You Substitute California Bay Leaves for Turkish Bay Leaves?
California bay leaves can be substituted for Turkish bay leaves, but they have a much stronger flavor. It is recommended to use half of the California bay leaves for any recipe calling for Turkish bay leaves.
Turkish bay leaves also called bay laurel or Mediterranean bay leaves, are the “normal” bay leaves you see in stores and in recipes.
Other kinds of bay leaves include Californian, West Indian, Indonesian and Mexican.
Bay leaves can be used fresh or dried. They should be removed from dishes before eating, since they pose a choking hazard.