What is Old Bay seasoning? The history of Maryland's proudest export, plus how to make an at-home version.

·6-min read
Old Bay seasoning is a favorite of Marylanders everywhere. (Photos: Getty Creative)
Old Bay seasoning is a favorite of Marylanders everywhere. (Photos: Getty Creative)

Old Bay classic seafood seasoning may be synonymous with summer and steamed crabs, but it's packed not only with bold flavors, but also with history. The spice blend has become downright trendy, moving from strictly seafood to being dumped on eggs or paired with popular snacks and condiments, from Goldfish to hot sauce.

For those that grew up near Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, there's a sense of Old Bay nostalgia. And for good reason: The origins of this unique spice mix actually date back to Baltimore in the first half of the 20th century.

"Old Bay was created by a German Jewish immigrant to Baltimore in the ’30s," shares Joyce White, a food historian who resides in Annapolis, Md. "The blend of spices is based on a centuries-old custom of mixing together sweet and savory ground spices."

That immigrant was Gustav Brunn, who happened to be a spice expert. Brunn ended up in Baltimore's then vibrant German community after fleeing Nazi Germany. His recipe, known as "kitchen pepper," was derived from a tradition of creating spice blends. Seasoning recipes for kitchen pepper date back to the 19th century and its ingredients include cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg and pepper.

A recipe for kitchen pepper appeared in the book 50 Years in a Maryland Kitchen: 430 Authentic Regional Recipes. (Photo: Mrs. B.C. Howard)
A recipe for kitchen pepper appeared in the book 50 Years in a Maryland Kitchen: 430 Authentic Regional Recipes. (Photo: Joyce White)

"This flavor combo was and still is very popular in Asia, but did not develop in medieval Europe until spices from Asia started to become more regularly imported," White tells Yahoo Life. "Because sweet spices from the Spice Islands and other parts of Asia were traded on land from one buyer to the next on the journey west, they were extraordinarily expensive once they reached Western Europe. They were, therefore, the status symbols of the day."

Baltimore served as a hub for such imported spices and these once-exotic ingredients, like cinnamon and black pepper, were now readily available in the region.

"Once spices became more affordable, by the mid-to-late 18th century, the sweet spices were often, but not always, pulled out of savory recipes," White explains. "However, this medieval combo does still assert itself in Western dishes and Old Bay is a good example of that."

Baltimore's many crab and seafood houses began putting their own twist on the creation with secret blends of herbs and spices. At the time, the flavor profile could most closely be compared to pickling seasonings.

So, what's in this mix? We don't know exactly, but we do have a few ideas.

"Old Bay, at a guess, contains sweet spices such as ginger, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cloves and cardamom," says White. "The savory spices are mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper and red pepper flakes."

Old Bay is known for its distinct taste that pairs notes of salt and pepper with a hint of smoke. While there's nothing quite like the seasoning once you've tried it, its distant cousins and substitutes include Cajun seasoning, Zatarain's Crab Boil, and Chinese five spice.

The now iconic spice mix was acquired by the McCormick Company when they entered the spice business in 1896, bringing store-bought Old Bay to home cooks everywhere. It's most commonly known now as McCormick's proprietary blend of paprika, peppers, and celery salt — along with a few other ingredients that have long been kept secret. Today, hungry hopefuls will put it on everything from crab cakes and shrimp boils to fries and potato chips.

"I grew up putting Old Bay on everything from French fries to wings to even my popcorn," Louie Silverio tells Yahoo Life. The 34 year old proudly showcases Baltimore's booming food scene on his Instagram page, @bmorefood, which he started in 2015.

"It just tastes like home," the born-and-raised native continues. "There's nothing quite like eating a crab feast with Old Bay seasoning — everything from the corn, to the steamed shrimp to the deviled eggs. It's summer in a can."

Aside from a personal connection, why does he love the seasoning so much? "It's the perfect combination of salt and spice which makes everything it's sprinkled on taste nice," he says.

While Silverio enjoys Old Bay's traditional uses, his favorite dish in Baltimore using Old Bay is the famous crab pie from Matthew's Pizza, a local institution since 1943. The dish combines 100% backfin crab meat, hand-grated mozzarella, imported reggiano cheese, caramelized onions and of course, Old Bay seasoning.

Thanks in part to deep marketing pockets from mega-corporation, McCormick, the spice has gained momentum globally. Beyond wildly inventive uses of Old Bay, the hyper-regional food has been given a mainstream eye in recent years partnering with a number of nationally and globally produced brands, including Lay's Chips, Herr's Old Bay Seasoned Cheese Curls and its most recent mashup with baked cheese cracker Goldfish.

The limited-edition release of Goldfish seasoned with Old Bay was met with overwhelming favorable reviews praising its balance of flavor. "I like it a lot," adds Silverio. "It's not overly seasoned and pairs very well with the original Goldfish flavor."

One of the more interesting collaborations can be attributed to Flying Dog Brewery, a craft brewery founded in Frederick, Md. Dead Rise Summer Ale, an Old Bay seasoned beer, pays homage to the state's summer crab culture and its residents' near fanatical obsession with the spice. It's also the only beer company to hold an official partnership with the McCormick Company.

Old Bay is in everything in Maryland, even the beer. (Photo: Flying Dog Brewery)
Old Bay is in everything in Maryland, even the beer. (Photo: Flying Dog Brewery)

"A team member with a deep devotion to their favorite state, seafood and seasoning came up with the idea for an Old Bay beer and we went nuts for it," shares Ben Savage, chief marketing officer of Flying Dog Brewery. "We love challenging our brewers to make delicious beers with non-traditional ingredients and flavors. After bringing the idea to McCormick, we were able to work together to create a special edition beer that was originally released to honor their 75th anniversary."

The thirst-quenching release is not only delicious but does good by supporting the crabbing industry: A portion of proceeds are donated to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' True Blue Program, an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness for the struggling industry.

With a fierce devotion to all things seasoning, there has since been a petition created to name the brew Maryland's first official state beer.

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