I use bay leaves a lot in my cooking. I use them in tomato sauce, chicken broth and almost every soup that I make. Native to the Mediterranean, the bay leaves you would buy in the store are usually the Turkish bay leaves. But here in Northern California, Bay trees are a standard in the mixed redwood forest, which makes using this variety much more convenient to use. If you’ve spent any time hiking amongst the redwoods, you know that the forest has a very distinct smell. The Bay is a leading contributor to that. I grew up in the middle of a thick, Redwood forest. To me, these smell like home.
California Bay trees are part of the Laurel family, which does have a few varieties that are not edible. Bays are evergreens, and identified by their stiff, dark green leaves. They are oblong, usually 2-5 inches, and about an inch wide. The best way to tell: smell them. While you never actually eat the leaf, they are removed after cooking, they have a very distinct scent and taste, almost menthol-ish.. When I was working as a naturalist, I had the kids bite down on a leaf to see if they recognized it.
In the fall, they also produce bay nuts, which squirrels and birds just love.
About once a year I go out to one of my favorite parks and clip off a few branches, seeking out ones that are uniform in size and generally free of bug munches. At home, I rinse them off, hang off my herb drying rack, aka my sliding blind track (seriously, the only thing those damn blinds are good for!).
Once dry, they will curl just a little bit and turn a lighter shade of grayish-green. Stored in a glass jar, they will last me through sauce and soup season!
The local Bay is usually discouraged from cooking with, because it is much stronger than the Turkish, but I personally can’t attest. I would rather use these locally foraged leaves to super old, dried ones from the grocery store. Some people suggest only using half a leaf of the Laurel, if a whole Turkish leaf is called for.