Bay leaves are ideal for slow-simmering soups and stews because they release their strong, aromatic oils slowly. They can add flavor to many dishes and are especially popular in the cuisines of France and Russia. In addition to soups and stews, they are frequently used to flavor sauces, vegetables, and meats.
They are one of the classic components of pickling spice, which is, of course, most often used for canning pickles. Other ingredients used in this spice include allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, dill seed, ginger, juniper berries, mace, mustard seed, peppercorns, and small dried red peppers. Bay leaves are also a major ingredient in shrimp and crab boil spice, used for boiling fresh shrimp, crab, and crayfish. Other common ingredients in this blend include mustard seed, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, coriander, ginger, dill seed, caraway seed, and small dried red peppers.
Bay leaves are almost always used whole and removed from a dish before it is served. When the leaves are shredded or crushed, the aroma and flavor are more powerful. Be aware that overuse of this herb can make a dish bitter. One-half to one whole leaf is usually all that is needed for a medium-sized pot of soup or stew.