Learn to harvest bay leaves in a way that also shapes your tree well for future harvests, plus drying and cooking tips for this popular herb.
Bay leaf is a classic and versatile spice used in a wide range of recipes. You can grow a bay tree to provide a steady supply of fresh bay leaves.
Plant it directly in the soil outside if you live in a warm southern climate. If you live in a colder climate (zone 7 or cooler), you’ll need to grow your bay tree in a container. For details on growing bay trees, see How to Grow Bay Laurel Trees: Join A Savory Perennial Tradition.
Attentive pruning will keep your bay plant well-shaped, compact, and productive. It will also provide you with an ample supply of bay leaves to dry. Read on to learn more.
How to Harvest Bay Leaves
You can handpick a few fresh bay leaves for immediate use whenever you want them. But most recipes work just as well with dried bay leaves.
You’ll need to prune your bay tree once a year. Once the tree is well grown, the pruning process should yield a good supply of bay leaves for drying.
Your pruning time will depend on your priorities. To maximize growth, prune your bay tree in the cool dark days of winter when it’s not actively growing. To get the best-flavored leaves, prune in the summer.
You might want to prune for growth in the first couple of years when your plant is small and then shift to harvesting when the flavor is best.
Decide on the shape you want your bay tree to have. Bay can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or a single-stemmed tree. You can let it grow naturally into an open shape or prune it to a ‘standard’ with a globe-shaped top.
The Herb Society has a good set of directions for standard pruning (ball-shaped topiary style); see page 15 with the Subtitle: Creating a Bay Standard.
Whatever model you choose, there are a few basic principles to remember.
- Decide how tall you want the tree to grow, and clip off the top of the central shoot when it reaches that height.
- When you clip the tip from any stem or branch, forked branches will grow from the end you cut, leading to a bushier, denser plant.
Pruning will mostly give you leaves from the tips of the plant. With most herbs, these are also the tenderest and most desirable leaves.
But bay leaves are never particularly tender, and one California Extension article says that larger, older leaves have the best and most robust flavor. Once your bay tree is large and well established, you should have plenty of older leaves to spare.
Drying Bay Leaves
Discard any damaged leaves. Rinse the good-quality leaves in cool water and gently shake them dry. For best flavor, pick in the morning just after the dew has evaporated.
You can air the leaves by spreading them on paper towels. This may take five to ten days. Fully dried bay leaves will be brittle.
Drying Bay Leaves in a Cold Oven
To quicken the drying time, the National Center for Food Preservation recommends drying bay leaves in the oven.
- Spread bay leaves out on a paper towel on a baking sheet, spaced so that no leaf touches another.
- Add another layer of paper towels on top.
- You can spread more leaves on top of that layer, making a bay-and-paper ‘sandwich’ up to five layers thick.
- Don’t turn the oven on, but instead turn the light on. The light will provide enough heat to dry out the herbs overnight.
Dried bay leaves should last for a year. Ball canning jars make a good container for your dried herbs for cupboard storage. They may sustain a stronger flavor over this period if they are stored in the freezer. You can extend the life of your herbs by vacuum sealing them before freezing.
Cooking with Bay Leaves
The experts disagree on whether fresh or dried bay leaves are more potent. Some Extension articles say that fresh bay leaves are more flavorful than dried ones. Others say dried leaves have more concentrated oils and a stronger flavor. One says there is no difference.
- Dried bay leaves are generally cooked whole in various dishes to flavor them and then removed after cooking. Fresh leaves also are often removed after cooking.
- You may chop fresh leaves into butters, cheeses, and salad dressings. You must remove stems and midribs before chopping the leaves.
- Many fresh herbs are best added late in the cooking process to preserve their flavor. However, Bay leaves release their flavors more slowly and benefit from a longer cooking time.
Bay leaves may be best known as a flavoring for soups, sauces, and meat and seafood dishes. I like the flavor bay leaves add to reconstituted dried beans.
Some recipes call for bay leaves in pasta, potato and rice dishes, and in pickles. Bay can also add a complex flavor to desserts, including stewed fruits, rice puddings, and custard dishes.
Here’s a collection of bay recipes from the Herb Society of America to get you started. Scroll down to page 23. A few of the included recipes are:
- Vegetable Red Curry
- Sea Gumbo
- Gingered Summer Fruit
- Poached Pears with Apricot Ginger Sauce
Bay leaves can also be made into an herb tea to aid digestion, infused into a bath to soothe aching muscles, or used to repel moths in pantries.
Substituting for Bay Leaves
Bay leaves have a unique flavor that is hard to replace. You can substitute some other species of bay leaf for Laurus nobilis. These include
- Persea borbonia (sometimes called red bay),
- Laurus azorica and
- Umbellularia californica
Bay leaves sold as cooking herbs may belong to any of these species. But don’t assume that you can pick leaves from anything that’s called bay or laurel—some plants with that common name are poisonous.
While other herbs can’t replicate bay leaf’s flavor, they may substitute for it in other ways. The University of Florida Extension office describes bay leaf, parsley, and marjoram as “liaison herbs” that blend and reconcile other herbs’ flavors.
Bay leaves dry easily, store well, and have a wide range of uses. With a little care and attention, you can harvest leaves for present wants while shaping the plant for future harvests.