If you grew up on the East Coast, anywhere from New England down to Florida, you’re well aware of Old Bay Seasoning. Its distinctive yellow and blue container with a red lid can be found in pretty much any pantry along the Atlantic. That’s because it has become synonymous with seafood, particularly as a seasoning for shrimp and crab. So, how did Old Bay become the preferred spice for seafood and what is it actually made of?
What is Old Bay Seasoning?
If there’s one place in America that is synonymous with the crabbing industry, it’s the Chesapeake Bay. So it makes sense that Old Bay Seasoning would have its origins there. A German Jew named Gustav Brunn worked in the spice business in his home country until the Nazis carried out Kristallnacht in 1938. Brunn escaped Nazi imprisonment and made his way to Baltimore, where he started the Baltimore Spice Company in 1939. He created a product called Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning, which he later renamed to Old Bay, after a passenger ship line that ran through the Chesapeake.
Old Bay remained a regional specialty for most of the 20th century until 1990 when it was bought by The McCormick Spice Company, which distributed the seasoning nationwide. Even after the acquisition, McCormick never changed the recipe, so the Old Bay that you use today is the same that Brunn invented 83 years ago.
What is in Old Bay Seasoning?
The ingredient list on an Old Bay Seasoning container is pretty simple: celery salt (salt and celery seed), spices (including red pepper and black pepper), and paprika. It’s gluten free and vegan friendly, though as an additive to seafood and other meats, that might not be an issue for most.
But if you try to make your own Old Bay Seasoning at home with just the ingredients listed, it’s not going to taste the same as the store bought stuff. That’s because the “spices” contain far more than just red and black pepper. The full spice list that goes into Old Bay remains a trade secret, but McCormick claims that it includes upwards of 18 spices and herbs.
Many have tried to crack the recipe over the years with mixed success. These homemade recipes include things like mustard powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, cloves, and white pepper, among many others. People have gotten close, but there’s just something about the OG Old Bay that hits differently.
Is Old Bay Cajun seasoning?
No, the two are very different spice blends. Cajun seasoning is used in Cajun food, which predominantly comes from southern Louisiana. So there is a geographical difference between Cajun seasoning and Old Bay seasoning. In terms of taste, Cajun seasoning tends to be spicier, having more peppers in it compared to Old Bay. In addition, Old Bay has a slightly saltier base, thanks to the celery salt.
Both seasonings are used in a lot of the same ways, though, so they are often interchangeable. It’s just a matter of how much heat floats your boat.
What are Old Bay Seasoning uses?
Every container of Old Bay seasoning says “For Seafood, Poultry, Salads, Meats.” It’s essential for most crab and shrimp bakes, but also works fine on most other types of fish. I’ve had it on chicken and it’s pretty good, but I can’t confirm other meats like steak. In terms of salads, I imagine sprinkling in on a caesar salad would be interesting, but I personally like it in mayo-based salads like potato salad and macaroni salad.
Some add it to Bloody Mary mix, some sprinkle it on popcorn, some use it as a paprika replacement on deviled eggs. And, if you’ve grown up or visited the mid-Atlantic area of the United States, you’ve surely encountered crab fries and their various cousins. Old Bay is surprisingly versatile, so get creative with it.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!
Oddly enough…Old Bay on steamed or grilled corn on the cobb
JO Seasoning #2 is actually used by the majority of crab places in and around Baltimore and throughout Maryland. It’s not even close.