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Bay Leaf Substitute


Here are a few options to use as a bay leaf substitute when you want to avoid the slightly bitter flavor or can’t find any at your local store. Creating a stew or soup from scratch is not complete unless you add in a few dried bay leaves for flavoring. They are the final touch that draws all of the flavors together and helps cut the richness of any dish.

tabletop with spice bottle labeled "bay leaf" and dry green leaves spreaded around

What Are Bay Leaves?

Bay leaves are often sold in dried form in containers or baggies (if purchased from a farmers market) that you’ve likely used in soup. These leaves grow on a Bay Laurel Tree and provide a minty, peppery, and slightly bitter flavor to dishes. You may also hear this herb referred to as a laurel leaf or laurel leaves.

While this leaf is excellent for adding subtle flavor, it is best to avoid eating the leaves whole as they will taste unpleasant. You can also use bay leaves for pickling, marinating meat, and fish dishes.

These leaves have a long history with uses, including victory crowns for ancient Greek athletic champions and medicine. Now, this herb is mainly in use as a flavoring agent.

Types of Bay leaves

Bay leaves are available in two varieties – California bay leaves and Turkish bay leaves. The most eaten type is the Turkish leaves – these leaves are grown on the bay Laurel and provide the familiar mild flavor. Turkish leaves are distinguishable by their broader leaves.

The California bay variety has longer, skinnier leaves and a bolder mint taste. It grows on the Umbellularia californica tree and carries a more pungent taste in all aspects. It is best to use this option in smaller doses to avoid overpowering any dishes.

Best Bay Leaf Substitute

1. Fresh Bay Leaves

Fresh bay leaves can work as an alternative to dried bay leaves. Most of the flavor notes are the same, though the fresh version offers a flowery taste not present in dry bay leaves. It is also more intense in general. As with most fresh herbs, there is a quicker turnaround time in which you will need to use the leaves before they go bad.

You’ll also note that it is much more challenging to find fresh bay leaves in grocery stores, and when found, have a higher cost than the dried version. You can use fresh leaves in place of the dried bay in all recipes.

Pros
This substitution provides nearly the same flavor as the dried version.

Cons
Fresh basil is pricier and more difficult to find in stores. Though, you may be able to find some online. This variation also spoils faster and has a bolder taste that may not mesh well with all recipes.

Cooking Tip:
Use ½ the required amount as a replacement.

2. Dried Oregano

Oregano is known for its complex flavor, varying from sweet to spicy. It shares a mild bitterness with bay leaves, allowing this herb to work as a substitute for bay leaf. Dried oregano works well in recipes that have an Italian influence and dishes that are tomato-sauce flavored or include beef.

Fresh oregano and dried oregano are easy to find in the grocery store in the spice aisle or near the produce (fresh oregano only). Both options are relatively affordable, with dried oregano being more budget-friendly.

Multiple varieties of oregano are available, including Mediterranean (for Italian dishes) and Mexican. While they are related, they originate from different plant families. Mediterranean oregano is part of the mint family, while Mexican oregano is from the verbena plant family. Expect a more potent flavor when using Mexican oregano and a higher level of spice.

Pros
Oregano adds a complex taste and mild bitterness to recipes. It is easy to find, both in dried and fresh versions. This herb is an excellent replacement in the Mediterranean, Mexican, and Italian recipes (depending on the variety chosen).

Cons
Oregano does not work in all dishes because the flavor is not a complete match with bay leaves. Expect a noticeable taste difference in each recipe that you incorporate oregano.

Cooking Tip:
Use ¼ teaspoon of dried oregano for every bay leaf.

3. Dried Thyme

Dried thyme is the best sub for bay leaf, especially in stews and meat dishes. Thyme provides a similar minty flavor as offered by bay leaves. Other flavor notes of thyme include a light citrus taste and an earthy flavor.

This herb is another easily found item in grocery stores. Though, you’re more likely to find it dried in the spice aisle than fresh. There is a noticeable difference in the appearance of thyme as it has tiny leaves (about the size of dried lavender flowers, if not smaller). Unlike bay leaves, you do not remove thyme before consuming a dish so that it will alter the recipe’s presentation.

Pros
Thyme is easily accessible and offers a similar minty taste to dishes. You can use thyme in most recipes that call for bay leaves.

Cons
This herb does have additional flavor notes that differ from those of bay leaves, so it will not be a perfect swap. It will also change how the final dish looks due to its different appearance.

Cooking Tip:
Use ¼ teaspoon for every bay leaf and adjust to your taste preference.

4. Fresh Basil

Fresh basil can work as a fresh bay leaf substitution, though only for Italian-based recipes. It offers a minty and peppery taste to dishes along with sweetness. Due to its difference in flavor, it will not bode well with recipes that are not tomato-based or Italian.

You can easily find fresh basil at most grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Some stores even offer it as a plant so you can grow it in your kitchen. Keep in mind; you should add the fresh version towards the end of the cooking time as basil is known for losing flavor if cooked too long.

There are many varieties of basil available, making it easier to customize the flavor of your dishes. Some provide a more pungent licorice taste, so you’ll want to be wary of which type you choose. Some common types include Italian basil, holy basil, and Thai basil.

Pros
Fresh basil is a good bay leaf alternative for Italian dishes, like pasta sauces. Using this swap adds a mint and pepper taste to meals.

Cons
The uses for basil as a replacement are limited due to its sweetness and anise flavor. If you add fresh basil into recipes too early, it will wither and lose flavor.

Cooking Tip:
Use one fresh basil leaf for every bay leaf in a recipe.

5. Dried Basil

Dried basil is the best replacement for bay leaves for a few reasons. Like other dried herbs, it has a much longer shelf life. Also, as basil dries, its taste better mimics the bay leaf flavor. Dried basil lacks the licorice taste that fresh basil offers.

Like fresh basil, dried basil offers a minty, peppery, and bitter taste. You can use dried basil in soups, stews, tomato-based recipes, and with poultry/fish. The lack of anise flavor opens up the possibility for recipes with this herb.

Pros
This swap has a reasonably close taste to bay leaves and can replace bay in various dishes. It has a long shelf life and can be found in the spice aisle in all grocery stores.

Cons
There are still some differences in flavor when using dried basil, so it does not work well in all recipes.

Cooking Tip:
Use 1/4 teaspoon of dried basil for every dried bay leaf.

6. Juniper Berries

You can use juniper berries as a bay leaf alternative when seeking a peppery taste. Beyond peppery, they also provide a citrusy, woody flavor to dishes. This berry is an ingredient gin producers commonly use to flavor their gin.

Juniper berries are not berries but rather come from an evergreen tree. However, they have a similar appearance to berries, offer a fruity taste, and have seeds. This “berry” is commonly included in recipes that derive from Europe. You can use this swap with heavier meats, like lamb cuts.

Depending on the area juniper berries are grown in, they have various uses. In the US and Europe, people use juniper for gin and cuisine. In Asia, juniper is incorporated into some bonsai designs.

Pros
Juniper berries provide a similar peppery taste to dishes. Many other replacements for bay leaves do not pair well with gamey meats, whereas juniper works well. These berries are generally available in most stores that offer a larger selection in the spice aisle.

Cons
This option is quite pricey, so it may not work for everyone’s budget. The additional flavors that juniper offers do not mix well in all recipes. Juniper also has a bold taste which can provide an overpowering flavor.

Cooking Tip:
Use ¼ teaspoon of juniper berries for each bay leaf in a recipe.

7. Boldo Leaves

Boldo leaves are an excellent substitute, though they produce a much stronger flavor in recipes. You’ll find a similar bitter taste along with a woodsy scent that mimics bay leaves. Boldo leaves and bay leaves are related, eluding to why they share flavor notes. Most commonly, boldo leaves are in recipes with South African influence.

This herb originates in South America and has a long history of medicinal use in Peru, France, and North Africa. This herb is often incorporated into teas, though certain dishes like lamb, beef, and fish use the boldo leaf. You’ll likely find these leaves challenging to locate in nearby grocery stores and may have to purchase them online.

Pros
Using boldo leaves in recipes offers a slightly bitter flavor and a similar aroma as bay leaves. This swap is excellent for slow-cooked recipes, like stews, soups, or sauce-based dishes with meat.

Cons
Boldo leaves are not readily available in grocery stores. It’s easy to use too much of this herb and overpower your dish, especially with its bitter flavor.

Cooking Tip:
Start with one boldo leaf for every two bay leaves. Adjust the quantity to your taste preference.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Bay Leaf Similar to?

Bay leaf is most similar to dried basil leaves and dried basil powder flavor-wise. This herb is one of the top options to use as a replacement for bay leaves in recipes.

Does a Bay Leaf Really Make a Difference?

Yes, bay leaves do make a difference in recipes. Because their flavor is milder, it’s a common misconception that this herb does not change how meals taste. However, they are a great addition to soups, stews, and meat dishes.

Can I Substitute Basil for Bay Leaves?

Yes, you can substitute basil for bay leaves. Opt for basil when you are looking to recreate an Italian recipe or one that has a tomato sauce.

What Flavor Is Bay Leaf?

Bay leaf is minty, peppery, and bitter. It is usually not the prominent flavor for dishes. Instead, many chefs use it to tie together recipes on the heavier side to help cut the richness.

Where Can I Get Bay Leaves?

You can find bay leaves at your local grocery store in the spice aisle. Otherwise, farmers’ markets are a great option. Typically, farmers’ markets will sell bay leaves in larger bags, so use this option when planning to cook with bay leaves.

How Important Is a Bay Leaf in a Recipe?

Using bay leaves in recipes not only helps cut the richness but also adds complexity to dishes. While you can leave bay leaves out, your recipe may feel too heavy or seem lackluster in flavor.

Summary

While there are quite a few replacements for bay leaves, not one substitute perfectly mimics the flavor. However, a few options stand out above the rest, including dried thyme, dried basil, and fresh bay leaves in some cases.

These choices range from budget-friendly to more expensive options that aspiring gourmet chefs can purchase online. Regardless of the dish you’re making, you can easily swap one of the options from the list into your favorite dishes when bay leaves are not available.

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Natalia | Flavorful home
Natalia is a recipe developer, food photographer, and home cook. She started Flavorful Home to document easy real food recipes perfect for busy families. She loves creating flavorful and nutritious meals while keeping the cooking process simple and joyful!

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