Laurel Mix Laurels

The Laurels (Lauraceae) are a moderate size family of aromatic trees and shrubs important for spices and flavorings. Only one Laurel species, the Avocado, produces fruit significant for food and oil, but what a fruit it is - and what oil - with a health profile similar to olive oil, but with a buttery taste and it goes to temperatures over 500°F/260°C without smoking.

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Avocado - Persea americana

Bacon The Avocado tree is the only member of the Laurel family that's a significant food producer. Its fruit, the Avocado, is also known as Alligator Pear and Midshipman's Butter. Avocado and the Spanish aguacate are derived from the Aztec ahuacatl.

Native to tropical America, this tree is a bit of a mystery. The fruit is very large with a large seed, and rather than storing energy as sugar it stores in the more concentrated form of oil which takes a lot of energy to do. Clearly the avocado co-evolved with some very large animal with high energy needs but that animal is now unknown. What is known is that people and jaguars love avocados.

Avocado oil has a higher smoke point than any other cooking oil, it can exceed 500°F/260°C safely, and has a health profile similar to Olive Oil. Unfortunately it's not commonly available.

Botanists divide avocados into three groups:

  • Mexican: grow well in arid climates and can stand coldish winters. They are of smaller size with much higher oil content (15% to 30%) and more flavor than West Indian varieties and smooth or warty green skins. They are suitable for guacamole and other Southwest and Central American recipes.
  • Guatemalan: Similar to Mexican varieties in oil content and flavor, these avocados are of moderate size and generally have a rough woody and somewhat loose skin. They are compatible with the California climate but not that of Florida.
  • West Indian: Most are of large size and have smooth skins. They have about half or less the oil content of Mexican / Guatemalan varieties (3% to 15%) and the flesh is more watery and less flavor intense. They are not recommended for guacamole or other Southwest dishes but are fine for Avocado dip (which includes mayonnaise and/or sour cream while guacamole does not) They work well for West Indian recipes and those of the American South.
  • Hybrid: Most commercial avocados today are hybrids, West Indian with some Guatemalan in Florida and various mixes of Mexican and Guatemalan in California.
Growing areas.
  • California produces 80% or the avocados sold in the U.S and also exports to East Asia where the Hass variety has become popular. Varieties grown in the state are of Mexican and Guatemalan extraction, small but high in oil and flavor. California avocados are available year round, and because they do not ripen until harvested they are warehoused right on the tree.
  • Florida produces a bit less than 20% of avocados sold in the U.S.. They are all West Indian varieties with some hybridization with Guatemalan, but with West Indian characteristics predominating. They are more perishable than the California varieties so are not shipped as widely.
  • Hawaii grows a significant avocado crop but mostly for local consumption. Exports are limited mainly to Alaska and non-US winter markets due to USDA APHIS requirements.
  • Texas, Louisiana and other Southern states grow a few for local consumption.
  • Mexico is the world's largest producer of avocados with 315,000 acres vs. California's 74,000.
  • Indonesia is now the second largest producer, just ahead of the United States, but exports mainly to Southeast Asian markets. Florida varieties have predominated there due to the wet tropical climate.
  • Worldwide Mexican/Guatemalan avocados are now grown in Israel, South Africa, New Zealand and Spain, West Indian avocados in humid parts of South America.
Buying, Storing & Using Avocados

Unlike other fruits, the avocado will not soften on the tree. California avocados are "warehoused" by just leaving them on the tree until needed. When picked they are fully mature but will be rock hard. Because of this California allows sale of undamaged windfall, banned here for all other fruits. Florida must sell its avocados immediately when ready. They can't leave them on the trees because of hurricane risk.

Look for avocados that are of uniform color without black or brown spots or bruises. When you buy them they will probably be hard and need to be left out on the counter for a few days until softened. To tell if an avocado is ready, hold it in the palm of your hand and squeeze very gently with your finger tips. You're looking for it to yield slightly but not be mushy.

Florida avocados are ready when you can feel them yield to gentle pressure, California avocados are best left for an additional day. Refrigeration can slow softening but not by much.

Once cut, avocados darken quickly from exposure to air. To fend this off brush the cut surface with citric acid or lemon juice, or press plastic wrap down on the cut to exclude all air. Alternatively just let the cut darken and dry. Just slice off the dark layer when ready to use.

Varieties - California

The University of California lists around 120 cultivated varieties known in California, but listed here are only ones I've successfully purchased in markets.

Eisenhower California: I have no idea why this is not the dominant green skin avocado in California. This is a fairly large avocado. The photo specimen was 5 inches long, 3 inches diameter and weighed 11-3/4 ounces with a seed weighing only 1 ounce. This avocado is delicious, ripens evenly, contains no fiber, has a stiff skin that can be peeled easily or used as a cup for eating it with a spoon. It's easy to tell when its ripe (mottled green and black), it slices nicely, but above all, it has a tiny seed and a huge amount of flesh. The grower says they have one tree, but intend to graft more. Purchased at a large farmer's market in Pasadena, California.

Hass California: this smallish avocado is oval with almost no neck and has an excellent almost smoky flavor highly suited for guacamole and other Southwest and Central American recipes. It has good shelf life and accounts for about 80% of the California crop.The skin is hard, rough, and black, even purplish when ripe. An over-ripe Hass will feel hollow under its stiff skin. The Hass was an accident and nobody knows what exact varieties it is descended from but it is mostly Guatemalan. Attempts to grow Hass in Hawaii failed. 5 to 12 ounces and available year round.

Lamb Hass
inside and outside view
This new variety not yet widely distributed. It is very similar to regular Hass but larger and the skin is less pebbly. It is ripe when the skin feels just a little loose. The flesh is rich and creamy with no significant fiber. The skin peels easily and the flesh slices very well.

The photo specimen was 4-1/4 inches long, 3-1/4 inches diameter and weighed 15-1/2 ounces. It was purchased at a farmer's market in Los Angeles.

Bacon California: a mostly Guatemalan variety, oval with a pebbly skin. It's similar to Hass in appearance but a bit larger and the skin remains dark green and somewhat pliable when ripe. Good flavor and makes good guacamole. 6 to 15 ounces and available during the summer months.

Bacon California: a mostly Mexican variety not as flavorful as Hass but still fine for guacamole and other Southwest recipes. It is pear shaped almost no neck. 6 to 12 ounces and available from fall through spring.

Fuerte California: this smooth green skinned avocado has very good flavor and is usable for guacamole and other Southwest recipes. It is a mostly Mexican variety, pear shaped with a noticeable neck and smooth medium green skin. This was the original California commercial variety. 5 to 14 ounces and available from late fall through spring.

Reed California: this large Guatemalan avocado is oval with no neck and a dark green, slightly pebbly skin. Most production goes to food service distribution rather than to stores. 8 to 22 ounces, available in summer months and early fall. It is ripe when it starts to show a few black spots on the outside and if it feels hollow it is overripe. When ripe the flesh starts to pull away from both the seed and the skin. Flavor is good but not as intense as Hass.

Pinkerton California & some Florida: this avocado has a relatively long neck, thick flesh, small seed and very dark green slightly pebbly skin. A Guatemalan variety but not as flavorful as some other California varieties. 8 to 18 ounces and available in winter and early spring. When buying Pinkertons check to make sure the neck is firm as some ripen unevenly and start to spoil from the neck.

Hawaii: a Mexican Guatemalan cross that dominates Hawaiian avocado production, and is the only Hawaiian grown avocado certified for export to other states. This avocado has medium yellow flesh, good nutty flavor and ripens green. Hawaiians consider it superior to Californian but little is exported to here because meeting the USDA APHIS packaging and inspection protocols is a real pain.

outside and inside view California - Parentage unknown: This is a very small avocado with good flavor. The skin is paper thin but peelable. When ripe, the seed rattles and the stem end becomes black. The photo specimen was 2-3/4 inches long, 2-1/8 inches diameter and weighted 3-1/2 ounces. The seed weighed 3/4 ounce. Purchased at a farmer's market in Los Angeles.

Zutano California: a pear shaped Mexican avocado with a prominent neck similar in shape to Fuerte but with a distinctive shiny yellow-green skin. The skin is smooth but very thin, some will peel easily if fully ripe but others will not. The skin is strong enough so the flesh can be scooped out. Zutanos are ripe when the skin turns black in large areas. Shallow dimpling in the black area is normal but it should not look shriveled. Zutanos range from 6 to 14 ounces but the photo specimen was 5 inches long and weighed 10-1/8 ounces, 7 ounces without the pit. Available from September through early winter.

Varieties - Florida

Hall I have few pictures of Florida avocados because Florida growers don't ship to California. This state's strict regulations designed to protect crops from imported pests and disease make it difficult. Florida varieties are not grown in California because they need a much wetter environment than is available here - and they aren't good for guacamole (not enough oil).

Fortunately my lack of pictures is made up for by Pine Island Nursery which has a very excellent set - just click on their small pictures for a larger view and details.

Florida: a popular very large sized commercial variety with high quality fruit and good yield. It has a smooth medium green skin and elongated mango shape. 24 to 40 ounces and available from August to October.

Florida: very popular commercially for very high yield and fairly good quality fruit. It has a smooth medium green skin and neckless shape. 14 to 24 ounces and available from July to September.

Florida, Gulf Coast: with its smooth purple skin and elongated shape this avocado is easy to recognize. It is considered of very high quality and is grown from Florida to New Orleans. 14 to 24 ounces, available from September through November.

Florida: a giant size avocado with dark smooth green skin and neckless shape. With high quality fruit, heavy yield and large size it is becoming a commercial favorite. 24 to 40 ounces and available from October through December.

Florida: a popular commercial avocado of good quality and very large size. It has a smooth shiny skin and a neckless but elongated mango like shape. It is particularly popular because it can be fully harvested before the hurricane season. 24 to 32 ounces and available from May through June.

Hall Hall has fallen out of favor with commercial growers in favor of Choquette which has a longer season and higher yield but is still grown in some areas because its cold tolerance is superior. The photo specimen was 7-3/4 inches long, 3.9 inches diameter and weighed just under 29 ounces.

This avocado was cut at the peak of edibility when the smooth emerald skin became splotched with black and the flesh had just started pulling away from the skin. Eating quality and flavor of the yellow-green flesh was excellent and it peels almost without effort. The flesh is soft and smooth without fiber but firm enough to slice well and hold its shape. This specimen was obtained from a Philippine market in Los Angeles. Available October and November.

Florida: a popular commercial variety producing very large, high quality avocado with a smooth green skin and a neckless mango like shape. 24 to 32 ounces, available August through September.

Florida: a popular cold tolerant variety producing high quality fruit with smooth green skin and a neckless mango like shape. 16 to 24 ounces, available November through January.

Florida: this very large avocado is popular in the Latin communities and easily recognized by its extremely elongated gourd-like shape. Very good flavor but only moderately popular with growers due to moderate yield. 24 to 40 ounces, available July through August.

Florida: a very popular early season avocado for both commercial and home growers. It has smooth green skin and elliptical shape. 16 to 24 ounces, available June through August.

Avocado Leaves

Avocado Leaves - Mexican   -   [Persea americana var drymifolia]

Avocado leaves are much used in parts of Mexico as a flavoring. For this purpose only leaves of Mexican type avocados (var drymifolia) are useful, as Guatemala and Florida varieties lack the anise-like aroma and flavor.

Avocado leaves are used both fresh and dried. Dried ones are most available north of the Mexican border and can be found in markets serving Mexican communities. Dried leaves are generally toasted on a hot dry comal until aromatic and are then crushed to powder. They may be used in soups, stews and other dishes to impart a light anise flavor.

Toxicity:   The University of California at Davis found that goats were sickened by eating large quantities of Guatemalan variety avocado leaves. This effect was not found with Mexican variety leaves. While it's highly unlikely that culinary quantities of any avocado leaf would have a detectable effect on humans, for flavor the Mexican ones are the ones you want anyway.   Photo by Ethel Aardvark distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Bay Leaves
These leaves have been very important in cooking in Europe since at least Roman times, and in North America since the European invasion. They remain kitchen essentials to this day. In northern India a slightly different leaf is used for similar purposes.

Bay Laurel   -   [Bay Leaf, Mediterranean Laurel, Sweet Bay, Laurus nobilis]

One of the most ancient and important culinary spices in Europe and the Americas, Bay Leaves are sold for high prices in little jars in the spice section of the supermarket. Look for leaves that are still reasonably green for good flavor. Fresh Bay Leaves are much more aromatic and are easy to grow in Mediterranean like climates. Here in Southern California they are very aggressive growers and I have to hack mine back continually to keep them from overrunning the place.

The fresh leaves are thought to have psychoactive properties and may have been used by oracles in ancient times but they are so bitter when chewed nobody I know of has tried to confirm this.

Indian Bay Leaf   -   [Malabar leaf, Malabathrum; Tejpat (Nepal, Assam); Tejpatta (Hindi); Tej Patta (Bengali), Tamalpatra (Marathi); Cinnamomum tamala]

Well known to Roman cooks and still used for beer brewing in the Middle Ages, these leaves are now little used outside of the cuisines of northern India. Native to the Malabar (West) coast of India, they are easily recognizable for having three prominent lengthwise ribs rather than just a central rib (some other South Asian laurels also have three ribs).

These leaves are considerably stronger than the familiar Bay Laurel and with a distinct overtone of Cassia (what passes for cinnamon in the US). I have found them in jars of cucumber pickles imported from India (India is a very large exporter of pickles). Judging by the color, I presume the photo specimens were gathered from such products.

Caution:   packages of dried leaves labeled "Indian Bay Leaves" are usually Indonesian Bay Leaves which are myrtles, not laurels - look for the three ribs. Subst: regular Mediterranean bay leaves with a bit of cinnamon added should work fine.   Photo by Sonja Pauen distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Germany.

California Laurel   - -   [Oregon Myrtle, California Bay, Headache Tree, L. Umbellularia californica]

California Laurel is used similarly to the Bay Laurel for cooking but I do not recommend it. Having bit into a California Laurel fruit to see if it really did produce headaches, I had a splitting headache seemingly in seconds. Reportedly some people are sensitive to the leaves even after cooking. California Laurel is easy to tell from Bay Laurel because the leaves are more elongated, pointy and lighter in color.

It is reported that American Indians in California did eat parts of the fruit, but under very limited conditions, and only the bottom third. The nut, similar to an avocado pit but much smaller, is reported edible after roasting. They are roasted quite dark and described as tasting like roasted coffee or dark chocolate depending on how dark they are roasted. Roasted nuts are ground and used in beverages.

Cinnamon, Cassia & Camphor   -   [genus Cinnamonum]
These barks used as spices have been of great culinary importance (and high price) throughout history, and probably long before. They are from tropical trees that can't be grown in places like Europe and North America.

Cinnamon - [Cinnamonum verum (zeylanicum)]
Cassia - [Cinnamomum cassia (aromaticum)]
Pandang Cassia - [Indonesian Cinnamon, Korintje; Cinnamomum burmannii]

Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the Malabar coast of India now grown also in the West Indies and South America. Cassia is native to Burma and is grown in China, Vietnam and Indonesia with Vietnamese (Cinnamomum loureiroi) considered the highest quality. The aromatic bark of both these trees is peeled and dried for use as a spice. The two are easily confused but pretty much interchangeable in recipes.

Shown are long Cinnamon sticks (top), standard U.S. Cassia sticks (center), broken Cinnamon common in Indian groceries (right) and ground Cinnamon/Cassia (left). Preference for and availability of these spices is a mater of region. Cassia predominates in the U.S. but is difficult to find in Europe where Cinnamon predominates. In Mexico Cinnamon is preferred, so it is widely available here in Southern California. China and Southeast Asia use Cassia almost exclusively. Cinnamon is used in India and Sri Lanka. Cinnamon generally has a cleaner, sweeter flavor and Cassia has a touch of bitterness.

Pandang Cassia is used for the cheapest and most common ground "cinnamon" in North America. This tree was planted in Hawaii in 1934 and has become somewhat of a pest.

Cinnamon Cassia bark is much thicker and often a darker color than Cinnamon which can be almost paper thin. Cassia tends to curl from one side into a cylindrical quill while Cinnamon curls from two sides into two cylinders taking a double scroll shape quill, though exceptions will be found in both cases. Shown are two sticks of Cassia (left), a stick of Cinnamon (top right) and a stick of Cinnamon made up of paper thin layers. Details and Cooking.

Kalingag   -   [Cinnamomum mercadoi]
This small tree, growing to about 30 feet high, is found only in the Philippines, where it is used locally as a flavoring. The bark contanins a lot of safrol rather than the cinnamaldehyde found in other trees of this genus, so the aroma is of sassafras and it is used for flavoring root beer. It also has a number of medicinal uses. Interestingly, the leaves have the three rib design like Indian Bay Leaf trees. This tree is Red Listed as VU (Vulnerable) due to over-harvesting for timber.

Camphor - [Cinnamomum camphora]
The Camphor Laurel is native to East Asia where it is used in camphor production, centered now in Taiwan where trees have been replanted so are not depleted as they are in China. The Camphor Laurel has become an aggressive pest in some areas where it isn't native, Australia in particular. Camphor is used medicinally and in plastics but not in food since it is toxic if ingested.

Sassafras   -   [Sassafras albidum (North America), S. tzumu (China), S. randaiense (Taiwan)]

The tree that defines the taste and aroma of root beer grows prolifically in the Eastern U.S. and into southern Ontario.

Sassafras leaves are naturally mucilaginous and are used to thicken and flavor gumbo in Louisiana. Filé Powder, sassafras plus other herbs and spices, was originally a substitute when okra was out of season but now stands on its own. The leaves contain no significant amount of Safrole (see below).

Sassafras root is now banned by the FDA since the component Safrole has been found to be mildly carcinogenic, but young shoots, leaves and above ground bark do not contain significant amounts. Safrole is also controlled by the USDEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) because of its use to manufacture illicit drugs.

Ispinku   -   [Ocotea quixos]
Dried Cupules

This tree, native to Ecuador and Colombia, is harvested for bark marketed as Ecuadorian or American Cinnamon, which is similar to but not identical to Asian cinnamon. Locally, the fruit cupules (hard shells around the fruit) are harvested and have been used as a spice since the days of the Incas. This spice is used for general cooking, but is particularly important for food offerings to the ancestors. It is also used to flavor an alcoholic drink called alajua. Oils from this tree present a number of significant medicinal properties, but more study is needed for general use. The photo shows dried fruit cupules.   Photo by Cillas distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Mexican Bay Leaf   -   [Litsea glaucescens]
Leaves on Tree

This shrub or small tree (up to 20 feet high) is native to southern Mexico and extends down into Central America. It is used in Mexico as a substitute for Bay Leaves in cooking. This plant is considered threatened because it has been over-exploited for culinary, medicinal and religious purposes (celebration of Domingo de Ramos). Local gatherers are not harvesting in ways allowing for regeneration.   Photo by Ernestolapeña distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Keule   -   [Queule, Hualhual; Gomortega keule of family Gomortegaceae]

This tall tree, native to a small region of Chile, is the only species in family Gomortegaceae and the only culinary member of order Laurales outside the Laurel family, so we're putting it here. This tree produces a soft, sweet yellow fruit about 1-3/4 inches in diameter that is used to make a kind of marmalade. The tree is Red List status EN (Endangered) due to over-harvesting and land clearing.   Photo by Diego Alarcón distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

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