What Is Old Bay Seasoning, Exactly?
If you've never tried Old Bay seasoning, you're in for a treat. This Maryland classic is the perfect complement to seafood, snacks and more.
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What is Old Bay seasoning? To people in 49 out of these 50 American states, it is a delightful salt-and-spice blend that goes nicely with seafood. To people from Maryland, however, it’s so, so much more. “It’s a spice that’s part of our identity,” says chef Nancy Longo, owner of Baltimore’s Pierpoint Restaurant, which is legendary for its Maryland-focused cuisine. “You can find it on everything: potato salad, fries, pasta salad, fish, fried chicken. It’s almost to say it’s the salt of Maryland.”
Just as Wisconsin has its cheese curds, Maryland has Old Bay, and it’s truly universal, dusting everything from seafood to some of the best snacks in the state. But tourists probably recognize it best as the seasoning that covers those famous Maryland crabs (and no, we’re not talking about imitation crab here!). If you want to eat like the locals anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay area, you’re going to eat Old Bay seasoning—that’s a food fact.
“Its continued presence in Maryland kitchens is a reminder of how central seafood is in our lives,” adds Kara Harris, a culinary historian in Maryland and author of the upcoming cookbook Festive Maryland Recipes. “Even if we are no longer serving crab and fish on the dinner table on a nightly basis, Old Bay is there, bringing up memories of crabs and gatherings with friends and family. My mom sent some to my brother in California. We’re lucky to have such an obvious way to send a literal taste of home!”
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The history of Old Bay seasoning
Like many of the greatest American breakthroughs and inventions (think: the Theory of Relativity, doughnut machines and the internet), Old Bay seasoning is the brainchild of a refugee. Gustav Brunn was a German-Jewish spice merchant who, in 1938, was arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. To secure his release, his wife paid a lawyer 10,000 marks (about $4,000 U.S. dollars at the time, or $86,000 today), and soon after, the Brunn family was on a ship heading to Baltimore. He quickly found a job at the McCormick Spice Company but was fired three days later when the company learned he was Jewish.
Brunn quickly bounced back, opening up his own spice shop—the Baltimore Spice Company—across the street from the city’s wholesale fish market. In 1940, after noticing the rampant popularity of fresh blue crabs harvested from the Chesapeake Bay, he decided to create his own signature spice blend to pair with them. Naming it after a local steamship line, Brunn began distributing samples to local crab steamers and fishmongers. Soon enough, Old Bay became the region’s go-to seasoning for blue crab boils, crab cakes, crab rolls and everything in between.
Old Bay remained a family-owned and operated business until 1990, five years after Gustav Brunn’s death. In a touch of irony, the company and its top-secret recipe were sold to Brunn’s former employer, McCormick, which continues to manufacture Old Bay to this very day.
These days, you can find Brunn’s famous seasoning nationwide, sold in local supermarkets alongside spices like paprika, saffron and cinnamon. But while it’s widely available, it’s still a regional treat. After all, what is Old Bay seasoning if not a treasure of the Chesapeake Bay area?
What’s in Old Bay seasoning?
The Washington Post/getty images
You know the answer to “What is Old Bay seasoning?” but do you understand what’s in it? The exact recipe for Old Bay seasoning remains a closely guarded industry secret, with McCormick revealing little more than the fact that it includes 18 herbs and spices, including celery salt (the most dominant flavor), red pepper, black pepper and paprika.
Officially speaking, the remaining ingredients are a mystery. But it’s pretty easy to pick out strong notes of mustard powder and allspice. Many copycat recipes include other warm spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, mace, cloves and ginger. Whether or not these are the exact ingredients, we’ll never know.
How to use Old Bay seasoning
In Baltimore, people will make the case that Old Bay can go on pretty much everything. And honestly, I can’t argue with that! You can, of course, use it on any kind of seafood before or after cooking. Sprinkle it on salmon steaks before they hit the grill, shake it on a platter of steamed shrimp, stir it into a crab boil pot—it’s easy to use your imagination!
But you could also take a cue from Longo and use it as a Maryland-style salt. That’s exactly what Reader’s Digest deputy editor Anne Fritz does. “I like Old Bay on my seafood, of course, but why stop there?” she says. “I’m addicted to it on fries or popcorn—these snacks remind me of my beloved Utz Crab Chips, which I can’t find in stores now that I no longer live in the Delmarva area. Its main ingredient is celery salt, so anytime a recipe calls for it, I substitute Old Bay, like in cole slaw or on the rim of a Bloody Mary.”
If you like that, you’ll want to shake Old Bay over scrambled eggs, coat buttery corn on the cob in the spice mix and even whip up your own version of Old Bay–dusted crab fries, Maryland’s favorite snack. If you want to use the spice mix as a rub, though, pick up McCormick’s Old Bay Rub, which adds brown sugar to the mix.
Cook with Old Bay seasoning
How to make your own Old Bay seasoning
While no one knows the exact recipe for Old Bay seasoning (aside from the McCormick company, that is), it’s easy to make a decent replica at home. And there’s a good chance you already have all the spices you need. If you don’t have the spices on hand, you can still whip up your own batch of Old Bay, but know that it’s much more affordable to buy a can of the seasoning instead of purchasing the 17 ingredients below.
- 4 large bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons celery seed
- 1 tablespoon hot paprika
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pulverize the bay leaves into a powder using a coffee grinder, food processor or mortar and pestle. Mix the ground bay leaves with the remaining ingredients. Homemade Old Bay has a relatively long shelf life: Store it in a tightly sealed jar in a cool, dark cabinet for up to one year.