Bay leaves are one of those ingredients that always seem to be in the house. No one has ever bought bay leaves. Bay leaves simply exist on the spice rack of every home.
Obviously, that’s not true. But it sometimes feels that way. This really begs the question, ‘When did we get these bay leaves?’ which in turn leads on to, ‘How long do bay leaves last?’ and finally, ‘Oh no, do bay leaves go bad?’
They’re such a ubiquitous part of cooking that assuming they’ll always be there, and always be good, is excusable. But of course, it isn’t true! Ever thought, ‘I’ll chuck a bay leaf in’, followed by, ‘do bay leaves even taste of anything?’ Of course they do! Unless they’re past their best of course…
If you’ve got a couple of packs of bay leaves in the kitchen and you want to work out if they’re bad, and then you maybe want to store the next bay leaves you buy a bit more carefully, then read on!
Although we refer to ‘bay leaves as if they were one thing, there are actually several kinds of bay leaf produced by several kinds of trees.
The Bay Laurel is your classic Mediterranean bay tree. The one depicted in scripture, and traditionally used in Italian food. The peppery leaves are added to soups and sauces and removed before eating. The California Laurel, on the other hand, is found in the southwestern USA and produces a leaf similar to bay laurel except with a stronger flavor. It’s also known as a California Bay and a Pepperwood. The leaves from both these trees can be used pretty much interchangeably, with number of leaves adjusted for strength of flavor.
Indian, Indonesian, and West Indian Laurels are all separate trees too. Their leaves produce more spice-like flavors with the Indian bay leaf akin to cinnamon. The West Indian bay is also used to make a cologne called bay rum.
The Mexican bay leaf, from a tree that is becoming endangered, has traditionally been used throughout Mexico and Central America. It’s got a mild flavor, and the tree also grows a creamy avocado-like fruit.
No matter which of these bay leaves you use, the advice for storage and when they go off is roughly the same. It can also be applied to the tangy kaffir lime leaf.
Table of Contents
Can Bay Leaves go Bad?
As with many spices, the answer is yes and no.
In order for bay leaves to go bad in the traditional sense — souring, mould, etc — they would have to be wet and poorly stored for some time. Instead, like most of the spice rack, bay leaves simply lose potency and flavor over time.
Bay leaves may also change texturally, making them difficult to work with and giving them the potential to ruin food by disintegrating as you cook
Stored well, bay leaves last really well though they’re most delicious earlier in their shelf life. They’re very unlikely to go bad in a way that will harm you, but you might end up with a disappointing soup if you keep your bay leaves too long!
How to Store Bay Leaves
Just like other dry spices, like chili powder, cumin or even saffron, bay leaves must be kept in an airtight container. If they have contact with air they will draw moisture from it, resulting in damp leaves more susceptible to going bad.
Your bay leaves will probably come in a glass jar or a cardboard box and plastic inner bag. If the jar they are in has a strong lid that seals tight you can leave the bay leaves as they came. If they were packed any other way, transfer them to a clean jar with a good lid. In a pinch you can use a plastic tupperware container (a small one) but it’s always best to use jars for longterm storage because glass is nonporos.
Light and heat can also sap the flavor and aroma of bay leaves, just as it does with other spices. Keep your spices in a cool, dark place. You shouldn’t put bay leaves in the fridge because of the moisture in there, but if you don’t have a deep cupboard or pantry that stays under room temperature then there is another option… which brings us nicely along to our next questio!
Can You Freeze Bay Leaves?
Yes, you can and perhaps should freeze bay leaves!
Frozen bay leaves lose flavor and aroma much slower than those stored either room temperature or slightly under room temperature.
You want your frozen bay leaves protected from freezer burn and other degradation while still be easy to grab, so put them in an airtight freezer bag. Bay leaves are a little delicate, and in a crowded freezer they could easily be crushed. To avoid that, you can make sure you stack them on top of everything else or, if your freezer doesn’t always stay exactly organized, you can put the sealed freezer bag inside a plastic tub and label and date it.
Freezing bay leaves is a great way to store them because they don’t need to be defrosted before use. As they’re so thin, you can just grab a couple from the freezer and drop them right into whatever you’re making. The leaves will defrost almost instantly.
How Long do Bay Leaves Last?
Again, this is a tough question because whether or not a bay leaf is past its best or bad is really up to you as the cook using it. Bay leaves get more brittle and less full of flavor gradually, so if you’re using them regularly you might not notice. Or, you’ll start needing to add two bay leaves instead of one to get the flavor you want into your food. I would call that past best quality, but not bad!
Use your initiative with bay leaves, but these are my guidelines for best quality.
In the pantry, in a genuinely cool and dark place, bay leaves will stay best-quality up to 3 months.
In the freezer, they will stay pretty much as they were when you put them in for about a year, maybe 18 months.
How to Tell if Bay Leaves Are Bad
Bay leaves are unlikely to show the classic signs of being off, like mould or unpleasant smells. It’s possible these will appear if the bay leaves have been kept in a very damp environment, but if you’re waiting for mould before you decide your spice is bad you may very well be waiting forever!
Instead, bay leaves become increasingly brittle over time. Eventually, they will fall apart in the jar or in your hands. This is obviously not good because you have to take bay leaves out of food before eating it, and you might never find all the crumbs!
To check the structural integrity of your bay leaves simply rub one between finger and thumb. If it easily comes to pieces it might be time to chuck this pack of bay leaves and buy some new ones.
Another sign that your bay leaves are past best is a loss of flavor and aroma. After rubbing your bay leaf, can you smell its peppery scent on your fingers? If not, it may not be very tasty anymore. Likewise, if food doesn’t taste like it has ever met a bay leaf but it had two in while cooking then you may need new bay leaves!
Uses for Bay Leaves
Bay leaves are used for cooking many different cuisines. They’re a basic of most spice racks (or, as we have learned, freezers) and if I’m honest I chuck them in most of my savory dishes. But what else can you do with bay leaves?
Bay leaves can be mixed with spirits to make an aperitif similar to the Italian ‘Laurus 48’. You can also smoke fish, meat or cheese with bay smoke for an interesting peppery tang. Finally, bay deserts are increasingly popular. Bay goes well with honey and pepper in ice creams and sauces.
If these all sound a little high effort, why not use your excess of bay leaves to make a bouquet garni herb bundle. The base of most French stocks and stew, they’re so pretty and useful you can even give them away as gifts!