Surprisingly, there’s been some debate over the necessity of using bay leaves in cooking. But since it appears often in many recipes, it would be nice to know a good substitute for bay leaf to help intensify the flavor of a dish.
The argument on whether or not bay leaf has to be used in cooking is likely due to its very subtle flavor profile. That’s not to say that this herb has nothing to offer.
You’ll find that several bay leaf substitutions are recommended to enhance flavor, but if you want to stay as close as possible to the taste and fragrance of bay leaves, you’ll find a substitution for that too.
Should You Use a Substitute for Bay Leaf in a Recipe?
If you’ve been asking if adding a bay leaf really makes a difference, you’re not alone. What I found over the years is that using bay leaves in long-cooking recipes adds an aromatic flavor. It also has subtle minty and herbal notes.
Bay leaf, or bay laurel, also provides a slight hint of bitterness. Laurel leaves are commonly used in soups, stews, and braises. The hint of bitter and pungent flavor is just enough to cut through the richness of such recipes so they don’t taste too heavy.
While it has its purpose in recipes where it’s included, bay leaf is rarely the highlight ingredient. That could explain why it’s not typically included on the grocery list of most homemakers. So you might stumble upon a recipe you want to try that calls for bay leaf, and realize you don’t have it yet in the kitchen.
There may also be a time when you have fresh bay leaves or dried bay leaves, but decide you want to explore amazing bay leaf substitutes primarily to boost the flavor of your meal.
Best Substitutes for Bay Leaf
This is hands down one of the best bay leaf substitutes out there. Both herbs share the same minty flavor profile, although thyme has more distinct citrus notes.
Fresh thyme does well as a bay leaf alternative. However, you may prefer using dried thyme because the flavor is more pronounced. It’s definitely something to consider if you’re looking for a substitute to elevate your dish’s flavor.
Another reason to like thyme is its versatility. You can replace bay leaf with thyme in soups and stews, and thyme is also a great addition to meat marinades.
Like bay leaf, it’s best to add thyme earlier in the cooking process to let its flavor develop well.
Oregano is a good substitute because it has a flavor profile similar to bay leaf. They both have an earthy and slightly bitter taste. This alternative herb, however, adds a noticeable sweetness and mild peppery notes. It also has a bolder flavor than bay leaf, so start with a smaller amount when using it as a substitute herb.
It’s easy to tell basil and bay leaf apart because their flavor profiles are very distinct from each other. While this substitute also gives off a dash of minty flavor, it’s mostly known for the freshness and sweetness it adds to savory dishes.
Most of the fresh basil sold in supermarkets is actually the sweet basil variant, and its sweetness blends well with the acidity of tomato. So it’s good to substitute basil for bay leaf when cooking traditional Italian dishes and recipes with tomato-based sauces and beef stews.
Here’s another versatile herb that goes well in various recipes and meats. Rosemary has a notable lemony, a tad peppery, and subtle minty flavor.
Similar to bay leaves, rosemary has a pungent flavor. But it’s much more potent, so be careful not to overuse it in any recipe. Although it works incredibly with meat roasts, I like adding rosemary to spice up simple roasted vegetables.
If you’re looking for a close substitute to bay leaf but less potent than oregano, then marjoram is a great option. Its flavor profile has earthy, sweet, and minty notes, but it has less of a spicy undertone than oregano.
Marjoram works well in most recipes that call for a bay leaf, including stews, soups, sauces, and braises. It’s also great to add flavor to grilled meats.
Mexican oregano deserves its spot on this list. You can easily tell it apart from the commonly used oregano because this variant has a distinct citrusy flavor. It’s also more pungent and has a noticeable licorice-like taste. It gives off a more intricate taste making it a staple in traditional Mexican dishes that are beloved for their bolder flavors.
Boldo leaves are commonly suggested to be used in place of bay leaves, but they might be a bit harder to find.
However, grab them for your spice cabinet once you see them in the store. Boldo leaves have the same fragrant and slightly bitter taste as bay leaves. They’re way more powerful than a bay leaf, so use them sparingly and adjust to your preferred taste.
I prefer to keep the leaves intact because they tend to be too pungent when crushed. Unlike bay leaves, wait toward the end of cooking to add boldo leaves. They could lose their aroma and flavor when cooked too long.
How to Use the Best Alternative to Bay Leaves
Since bay leaf doesn’t typically add a prominent taste to a dish, it gives you a little room to experiment. If you want to tweak the flavor and aroma of a dish slightly, you now have several options to replace bay leaf.
Start experimenting with herbs already familiar to you. This way, you’ll have an idea of how it would change the flavor of a dish and how much you need to use.
Most of the bay leaf alternatives above have more prominent flavors. You can substitute one piece of bay leaf with 1/4 teaspoon of dried oregano, dried Mexican oregano, and dried rosemary.
Generally, you will need about three times that amount if you’re substituting with fresh herbs.
Basil is less likely to overpower a dish, so it’s safe to use a 1:1 ratio when replacing bay leaves with it. The same goes for marjoram.
The flavor of boldo leaves can easily dominate a dish. So it’s better to start by using half the amount you would with bay leaves. If the recipe calls for one bay leaf, add just half of a boldo leaf, then adjust the taste to your liking.
Recipes To Try With the Best Bay Leaf Substitute
Bay leaf may not have the lead role in most recipes, but that’s actually advantageous. It makes finding a bay leaf substitute easier without worrying too much about ruining the final product.
If you have a bunch of basil leaves left, go ahead and use them in this easy Instant Pot Spaghetti Bolognese. Mexican oregano (or even regular oregano) would be great for this Instant Pot Beef Barbacoa recipe.
If you want to try a substitute in a healthy broth, you can’t go wrong using rosemary for this Instant Pot Ham Bone Broth.
Not exactly. Fresh bay leaves have a more pungent flavor with a bitterness that tends to be more powerful. Meanwhile, dried ones have herbal and minty notes similar to oregano and thyme.
Standard bay leaf is sold as whole dried bay leaves in supermarkets. But if you happen to have fresh bay leaves instead of dried ones, you can use them as a substitute.
If the recipe calls for 2 whole dried bay leaves, just add one fresh bay leaf. If the dish needs half a teaspoon of crushed bay leaves, you can use 1 bay leaf.
If you have bay leaves or any of the great alternatives, it’s best to stick to what the recipe requires. In case you don’t have bay leaves or any of the alternatives for bay leaf, it’s okay to skip it altogether. Because bay leaf’s flavor is subtle, it shouldn’t greatly affect the dish.
Be Creative and Have Fun Using Bay Leaves Alternatives
Using substitutes for any ingredient can be a wonderful learning experience. While recipes are must-haves in the kitchen, unexpected circumstances often arise.
With our busy daily lives, it’s easy to lose track of what’s still left in the spice and herb cabinet. You’ll be happy you know some great bay leaf substitute options when that happens. Then you can get on with your chosen dish for the day without falling short on the flavor.