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Making soup isn't always simple. There's the seasoning, the simmering, the straining, and – if you're really dedicated – the stock-making. Then, of course, there's that long list of ingredients, beginning with the basics like carrots, onions, and celery, and snowballing from there.
So with all of the time, energy, and components that go into soup, can one little leaf make a difference? Yep, we're talking about that soup staple, the bay leaf. The one that's called for in so many recipes. But can your soup survive without it? Probably.
"Bay leaves have a really wonderful fragrance, and that fragrance is going to be imparted into any soup that you're going to make," Brendan Walsh, dean of culinary education at The Culinary Institute of America, told Yahoo! Shine. "Could you eliminate the bay leaf? Absolutely. But the more you start removing things like that, the more you remove complexity."
And for those of us who might not know exactly what he means by complexity, (or for those who do know, but have, er, friends who might not) allow Walsh to explain. "It's the difference between eating a raw onion and a caramelized onion. If you want a raw onion, that's fine, but when you taste a caramelized onion, it's got sweetness, it's got mouthfeel and texture. That's complexity."
In order for a bay leaf to actually add some flavor to a soup, you'll have to leave it simmering for at least 20 minutes. The longer the better … and the fresher the better. If, as you're slurping down your finished product, you don't feel like that little leaf made any difference, that's probably because you bought those bay leaves back when Clinton was president. "A lot of the problem is people have had bay leaf sitting in their counter drawer for three years and if you smell them, they don't have anything left," said Walsh. "When you get fresh dried bay leaves, you can smell them as soon as you open them."
Walsh suggests using up all your bay leaves within six months of opening the jar or package, in order to make sure they pack the most punch.
Don't pigeonhole the bay leaf into the soup-only category, however. There are plenty of other uses for this fragrant herb derived from the laurel tree. (Just ask the ancient Greeks, who used to fashion the fresh leaves into wreaths to bestow upon the winners of athletic events.) Bay leaves are great for shellfish boils and other seafood dishes (bay leaves are actually a main ingredient in Old Bay seasoning), as well as for stews and sauces, especially richer ones. "White sauces have a fairly creamy, heavy texture," said Walsh, "so floral fragrances, which bay leaves provide, work wonderfully in those."
And while most recipes suggest removing the whole leaf before serving your dish, that's only because it's got a tough, stick-like spine and doesn't break down like a dried basil or parsley leaf. There's nothing wrong with eating bay leaves, though. In fact, you can go wild and actually chop a few up to use as a rub for roast duck or pork.
But back to soups. If you don't have any bay leaves on hand and still want to pump up that floral flavor while simmering, Walsh suggests reaching for some dried thyme. Just make sure to store all dried herbs properly, so you're not tossing the flavor equivalent of cardboard into your dish. That means keeping them out of the sun, and in a cool, dark place. "They'll last longer and they'll keep the fragrance longer," said Walsh. "And fragrance is key. Seventy-five percent of your taste is in your nose."
Final verdict: Sure, you can make soup without a bay leaf, but if you've got it, use it, since it adds a nice, floral flavor and, yes, complexity. And if you're bay leaves are more than six months old, dump 'em and buy a fresh batch.
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