The bay leaf is the first vegetal food additive that I have ever experienced in food. When my mom would make pork adobo at home, it was always part of the stew. Why? I didn’t know why back then but she never removed the leaf from the stew. I ended up eating it and it wasn’t so pleasant to eat as a whole.
That was my first bay leaf experience. The experience in my mouth wasn’t great but the flavors that it was intended to release were pretty clear. The leaf is commonly added to rich stews to cut through the richness. But that’s not all! Bay leaves could be used in braises, tea and even cocktails!
Just to give you a little review of what a bay leaf smells and tastes like, here it is! Bay leaves taste slightly minty, black peppery, slightly bitter with the aroma of pinewood. It sounds like a lot but yes; all of these notes come from the wonderful bay leaf. Does it really make a difference, though? It does! The flavors are subtle once added to food or drinks but it’s a slow burn towards noticing it. There’s a reason why we use it and it’s not just for show.
Although the flavors aren’t the same, oregano still makes a great alternative to bay leaf, oregano is also used in braises and stews just like the bay leaf. Its flavors balance the richness of these dishes and add wonderful aroma. Oregano could be purchased dry or fresh. I personally like using fresh oregano and adding it towards the end of cooking.
Oregano can be added to red stews or braises as a substitute to bay leaves.
Thyme looks completely different from the bay leaf and you can argue that it tastes different too, however it makes a great substitute for bay leaves. But you know what’s similar between the two? It’s the minty flavor. First, identify what you need the bay leaf for. If you’re looking for its subtle minty flavor in your dish, go ahead and add thyme. The aroma will be slightly different but the flavor will be there.
This is one important thing to take note of when looking for substitutes in cooking. What is your intended flavor? Which substitute would fill the missing piece?
Bay leaves are usually added to red stews. The black pepper flavor and slight bitterness equalize all of the ingredients in the stew. But you ran out of bay leaves! What are you going to do?
The answer is BASIL.
Basil is one of the pillars of Italian cuisine and makes for a great replacement for bay leaf. I’m just making this up, really. But if you think about it, Basil is such an important herb in Italian cuisine. It is used in various Italian dishes from the appetizer down to the dessert. Basil makes the flavors pop and it cuts through fatty or rich food. Although slightly sweeter than the bay leaf, you may use basil as an alternative for red stews like Bolognese or other forms of ragout.
4. Juniper Berries
Juniper berries look cute. I’m going to leave this here. Juniper berries look awfully similar to blueberries but they taste completely different. Juniper berries are mostly used to season game meat. It distracts us from the gamey flavors of the meat and makes it taste more elegant and well, appetizing.
The reason why juniper berries are a good substitute for bay leaf is because of its pine-like aroma, If you’re looking for that bay leaf feature, juniper berries are your best substitute option.
5. Boldo Leaves
How many of you have heard of this kind of leaf? If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, it’s completely fine. Boldo leaves are commonly found in South America and use for cooking and medicinal purposes.
The reason why Boldo leaves made our list is because of the similarities in flavor and aroma. Boldo leaves come from the same family of bay leaves making it a great substitute for bay leaves. In fact, in South America, boldo leaves are more commonly used than bay leaves for the exact purpose of cooking in beef stews, lamb stews, and rich meat braises.