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This spice blend is a staple for every seafood lover. But aside from nostalgia, what's really in a can of Old Bay seasoning?

By Melanie Fincher
December 21, 2019
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Old Bay Seasoning
Credit: Amazon

Old Bay seasoning is synonymous with seafood and nostalgia, and no coastal kitchen is complete without it. That bright yellow can is all too familiar to residents of the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. But what is in it? And where did it come from? I took a deep dive into the history and makeup of this classic spice blend. Read on to learn how to make your own Old Bay Seasoning, plus get top-rated recipes to put the seasoning to use.

History of Old Bay Seasoning

The story goes that in 1939, a German immigrant named Gustav Brunn started the Baltimore Spice Company in downtown Baltimore. Having fled Nazi Germany in 1937 with only a small spice grinder, Brunn created "Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning." This spice blend was meant to service the needs of the nearby seafood market and was later renamed Old Bay seasoning, after the Old Bay Line passenger ship that traveled the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1900s. In 1990, the spice giant McCormick & Co. purchased the rights to Old Bay, continuing to offer it in its classic yellow can as we know it today.

What Spices Are in Old Bay Seasoning?

According to McCormick, Old Bay is a blend of 18 herbs and spices, making it versatile for use on fish, chicken, vegetables, and soup. The unique blend of spices includes (but is not limited to): celery seed, paprika, mustard, salt, red pepper, and black pepper. Unfortunately the remaining spices and herbs remain a mystery to those outside of McCormick, although many have tried to crack the code, including some in our community of home cooks (more on that to come).

The robust and zesty flavor that comes from this mystery spice blend is the perfect accompaniment to crabs (preferably Maryland Blue Crabs) as well as many Cajun dishes. Although Old Bay enthusiasts will argue that it can really go on anything — french fries, popcorn, and even lollipops.

How to Make Old Bay Seasoning

While the original recipe is largely a mystery, many copycat versions have popped up over the years. Learn how to make your own seasoning substitute with things you likely already have in your spice cabinet based on Jan's Old Bay Seasoning Substitute.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons celery salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pinch dry mustard
  • 1 pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1 pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 pinch ground cardamom
  • 1 pinch ground allspice
  • 1 pinch ground cloves
  • 1 pinch ground ginger

Instructions:

  1. Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl. Store in an airtight container, and enjoy!

Ways to Use Old Bay Seasoning

Get all the seafood inspiration you need with these top-rated recipes that feature the Mid-Atlantic's favorite seasoning.

"I've been using this recipe for over 20 years, ever since I moved to South Carolina," says recipe creator Shirley. Red potatoes, sausage, corn, and shrimp are made better with Old Bay in this classic Southern stew.

Frogmore Stew
Credit: Draderness

"The fishermen of Bodega Bay, California shared this favorite, quick and easy recipe with my sister during a Fish Festival," says recipe creator AMYTHE. "It is one of the best chowders I've had, and my kids love it too! We top with bacon bits and a few shakes of hot sauce for a little spice. Enjoy!"

Fish Chowder
Credit: SunnyByrd

“Very easy, flavorful, and cost-friendly! This would be a good dish for someone who is either new to eating fish, or is not usually a fish lover, as tilapia is very mild,” says reviewer deborah L.

Easy Baked Tilapia
Credit: YurneroxX

Not a seafood fan? These mock crab cakes are made with zucchini, but flavored with Old Bay for a familiar seafood taste. Reviewer Kim O recommends using even more Old Bay seasoning than called for for added flavor.

Connie's Zucchini Crab Cakes
Credit: Zory

Related: Browse our entire collection of Seafood Recipes.