This deliciously pungent and widely used herb is also unfortunately quite often misunderstood. It is an important ingredient in a multitude of dishes and essential to many, sweet and savoury. Often overlooked as a flavouring, some cooks seem to be unsure exactly what bay does for a dish - one commentator even remarked that he couldn't detect any flavour from the addition of bay leaves. Whether they had used the wrong herb, or had a lack of taste buds remains unclear.
The bay tree Laurus nobilis is often referred to as the bay laurel, which is not closely related and reasonably poisonous - as are the leaves of the cherry laurel, which are laden with prussic acid. This confusion has reigned for centuries, rather than bay laurel; a more appropriate common name is sweet bay.
Native to the Mediterranean, the evergreen bay tree possess dense foliage consisting of 5 cm long, deep green and glossy leaves. These leaves are quite uniform in shape. Most domesticated bay trees are grown in pots, or a small plot in the garden and hence grow to a modest height of 2 - 3 metres. An older tree, un-pruned and given free reign can grow to quite a huge specimen of 10 metres or more. In the harbour-side Sydney suburb of Balmain there is a gargantuan bay tree growing that practically shades an entire car park.
The leaves of the cassia tree, Cinnamomum cassia are often sold under the pseudonym - Indian bay leaves. This tree is totally unrelated and has an entirely different flavour. They also can be eaten whole and in quantity without any side effects. Sweet bay leaves are different; if you eat enough of them they can poison you. Every so often in India there is a rash of poisonings after European bay leaves have been unscrupulously sold as cassia leaves.
The bay tree has long been steeped in symbolism. Gifts of the leaves are proffered to those starting anew, or entering the next chapter of life - usually people moving house or about to be wed. It was also tradition to crown poets with the herb, giving rise to the title; poet laureate.
The fresh herb has the most pungent flavour, but unless you grow a tree, or know a greengrocer who stocks bundles of fresh bay, dried is your only option. Dried bay leaves can still possess a strong flavour and can be substituted in almost all cases. When purchasing dried bay, look for unbroken and firm-looking leaves. They should preferably still hold a semblance of pale green colour - avoid any that are dull brown, as they are most certainly past the post.
Unlike most herbs, bay gives up the most flavour after a prolonged period of cooking. This is why bay leaves are generally found in recipes for slow cooked dishes - such as casseroles, braises and stews. Almost every western style stock; chicken, veal, vegetable and fish, calls for bay leaves - usually in the form of a bouquet garni, which is a bundle of bay, parsley, thyme and peppercorns.
So what does bay taste like? Being such a unique ingredient, it is hard to call other herbs on as a comparison. The most appropriate, albeit clumsy description would be a lingering savoury flavour, combined with a gentle hint of spice. Bay leaves can easily overwhelm a dish, so most recipes would call for 1 or 2 at most. I suspect the reason some people can't detect the flavour of bay is that the leaves they are using are dry and old, hence impart little flavour. If you suspect your bay leaves aren't very fresh, I suggest doubling the amount the recipe calls for. If you are unsure, try simmering a single bay leaf in a small amount of milk for a few minutes. If it still just tastes like cow juice, then add more leaves. This is also a good way to sample the flavour of bay unadorned, so you can find out what they really taste like.
Bay leaves are most often used whole - so they can be easily retrieved from a finished dish. They are never consumed because apart from toxins, they are indigestbly hard. Crumbled bay leaves are never a good idea as they are hard to fish out and add a horrible grittiness to the finished dish.
If you want to try an unusual and ancient recipe that showcases the flavour of bay leaves, try making some bread sauce, an old English recipe that is served with chicken, but you could sauce turkey with it as well.