Have you ever eaten a nice hearty stew, and noted a subtle, but potent earthy kick in each spoonful? That little bit of flavor is the mighty bay leaf! Though it’s often overlooked, this nifty herb can add a delightfully complex flavor profile to your favorite autumn and winter recipes.
However, what if you don’t have this spice on hand? No problem! You can use one of these 6 substitutes for bay leaf to maintain that complex taste in your cozy autumn soup.
6 Flavor-packed Substitutes for Bay Leaf
Thyme is a spice powerhouse, and possibly the best substitute for bay leaf. Though the spice looks very different from a bay leaf, both herbs share a delightfully complex flavor profile. Thyme has a nice, earthy taste, with a slightly minty bite. This is very similar to the bitter slightly piney flavor bay leaf imparts to dishes.
Though you can substitute bay leaves for thyme in all meals, it works particularly well in dishes that contain beef or lamb. The earthiness not only pairs well with the particular umami flavor of these meats, but it also boosts their nutritional content. Thyme is full of vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium, all of which are necessary for maintaining a healthy immune system.
However, despite these two herbs being very similar, thyme is a touch stronger than the bay leaf. Therefore, you should adjust the amounts when substituting.
1 bay leaf = ¼ tsp of thyme
Oregano may be incredible on pizza, but the spice can do so much more. Namely, it makes for a great substitute for bay leaf. Like bay leaves, it imparts a strong, bitter flavor to dishes. However, it also has a refreshing minty aftertaste.
This is why it pairs so well with tomato-based dishes. The bitterness offsets the acidity in the tomatoes, while the notes of mint keep the dish bright. Therefore, if you’re making a red pasta sauce or a tomato-based stew, then oregano is the best alternative for you.
Once again, since oregano can have a very overpowering flavor, you may want to adjust the ratios when substituting.
1 bay leaf = ¼ tsp of oregano
Alternatively, if you’re using crushed bay leaves, then you can use a 1:1 ratio when substituting.
3. Mexican Oregano
Mexican oregano is like regular oregano’s more exciting cousin. As its name suggests, the spice is native to Latin America, chiefly the country of Mexico. While traditional oregano has an earthy flavor with a minty aftertaste, Mexican oregano has very sharp undertones, almost resembling citrus fruit.
This is why it works so incredibly well as a substitute for bay leaf, especially if you’re making Mexican dishes. The earthy quality will deepen the flavor of your chili or salsa, while the citrus notes will offset any heat you may add it.
However, just like traditional oregano, Mexican oregano has a stronger taste than bay leaves. In fact, Mexican oregano can be even more overpowering than regular oregano. Therefore you should adjust the amounts when substituting.
1 bay leaf = ¼ – ⅛ tsp of Mexican oregano
If oregano is married to pizza, then basil is pasta sauce’s one and only love. This fragrant spice also offers the trademark earthiness you want when looking to substitute for bay leaves. However, it also has notes of sweetness that can add a unique spin to your next meal.
While dried basil is very aromatic, fresh basil has a much stronger impact, especially in tomato-based dishes. The leaves produce a strong aroma that is a cross between sweet and savory, which will not only make your tummy happy but also your nose.
However, just like oregano, basil, fresh basil especially, is much more powerful than bay leaves.
1 bay leaf = ¼ tsp of basil
Also, keep in mind that the sweet notes could alter the flavor profile of your dish heavily. So it makes a great substitute if you’re making Italian food. However, if you’re cooking a Russian or Polish dish, then your best bet is to go with another alternative on this list.
5. Juniper Berries
Juniper berries are a fairly common sight in Northeastern gardens. However, very few people know the incredible culinary feats you can achieve with these babies. Though they look like blueberries, they actually have a similar flavor profile to bay leaves!
The berries are earthy, and slightly bitter, with hints of citrus and pine. Hence you can use them if you want to substitute for bay leaf, especially if you’re making a hearty roast. The only downside to the berries is their questionable safety. Out of the 40 different varieties of juniper growing in the wild, only a few yield edible berries.
And out of those few, only the common juniper berry is used for flavoring. What’s more, while juniper is safe if you take it in small amounts, it can cause serious harm if you consume too many berries. Eating over 10g a day, or consuming the berries for weeks on end, can give you kidney problems and seizures.
Not only that, but juniper can have a detrimental impact on pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. It can induce a miscarriage and interfere with fertility. So if you’d rather not chance any of these possible side effects, go with another alternative on this list.
But, if you want to use only a small amount of juniper, keep in mind the ratios when substituting.
1 bay leaf = 2-3 juniper berries
First off, a bit of a disclaimer — rosemary tastes very differently from bay leaves. The aromatic shrub has a slightly minty, peppery taste with a hint of bitterness. However, because many cooks add it to dishes to give them a robust flavor, you can use it as a substitute for bay leaf.
What’s more, the herb is very heat resistant and won’t lose flavor when you cook it. Therefore, if you’re cooking stew, feel free to add it at the beginning. Alternatively, you can add gamey meats in place of bay leaves to give them that extra punch.
1 bay leaf = ¼ tsp of rosemary