Here’s an easy way to see what bay leaves really taste like: throw a couple in a pot of water and let it simmer. Taste it after five minutes and you’ll probably get a good hit of menthol and eucalyptus (think: Vick’s VapoRub). That’s the chemical eugenol you’re smelling, and it’s the biggest constituent in the bay leaf’s flavor arsenal of more than 50 compounds.
Let them simmer for longer as they would in a stew—say, an hour or so—and you’ll notice that the flavor and aroma will change. The harsh nose-clearing menthol will taper down, while more complex tea-like aromas will start to come forward. Those are the flavors you’re looking to add to your soups, stews, and sauces.
It’s understandable why you may think they’re optional. Bay leaf, by its very nature, plays second fiddle to other, more prominent flavors. But just as a grind of black pepper, some sautéed anchovies, or a softened leek might not be instantly recognizable in a stew, they add a layer of subtle background music for the stars of your dish to play over.