Bay leaves are used often to season soups and other dishes. Whole or crumbled bay leaves added to a dish will provide a slightly bitter taste. If using a whole leaf, it will need to be removed when the dish is done cooking. Fresh leaves are best removed from the plant right before it flowers for the freshest taste. Bay leaves are easily dried and stored. There are several ways to preserve bay leaves, but preserving them by drying is the most common. They can also be preserved in oil, but it is not a good idea because herbs preserved in oil at home can easily turn toxic.
Cut a large branch from a healthy, mature bay plant using scissors or a sharp knife. Remove any damaged or browning leaves, and check thoroughly for bugs. Whole branches full of leaves are best cut in late morning or evening when the plants are dry. Avoid cutting the plant in the middle of the day when it is hottest.
Rinse the leaves well with cool water. Dry the leaves thoroughly with a paper towel or cloth. Be sure to remove all moisture to avoid moulding during drying. If mould appears, you will have to throw away all the leaves.
Remove the lower leaves from each stem with your fingers. This will give you room to tie up and hang the leaves and will remove older leaves, which do not have as much flavour as the ones nearest to the top.
Gather five or six stems together, hang them upside down and tie them into a small bundle using string or ribbon. Tie them together where you took the lower leaves off in Step 3.
Place the bunch into a paper bag. Make sure the bag is large enough to prevent the leaves from touching the sides of the bag. Gather the bag around the stems and tie with string. Cut a few holes in the bag for ventilation. Write the date on the bag so you know how long the bay leaves have been drying.
Hang the bag in a warm area that has good air circulation. Leave the bag hanging for two weeks. After two weeks, check the leaves and leave them longer if they are not completely dried.
Check the leaves for any sign of mould. If mould is present, the entire bunch will need to be discarded. If the leaves are completely dried, remove all of them from the stems and store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place such as a pantry.
Stored bay leaves will last for several years, but the best flavour will be found if they are used within the first year. Bay leaves can also be dried by removing the leaves from the stems and placing them on screens until they are completely dry. A speedier alternative to air drying is to use a food dehydrator. This will enable you to dry large amounts of bay leaves much faster.
Do not crush the leaves before storing as this will lessen the flavour. Store the leaves whole and crush them as needed.