If you grew up in a certain sliver of America near the Chesapeake Bay, Old Bay was a holy nectar. It was applied to chicken, shrimp, fish, and, of course, crabs. But the story behind this East Coast taste is somewhat murky. Let’s look at where Old Bay came from—and how to use it.
Who Invented Old Bay?
The brand is currently owned by spice giant McCormick but they only bought the seasoning in 1990. A Saveur story from 2002 claims that the blend is the brainchild of a German immigrant, Gustav Brunn, who lugged his spice grinder to the United States in the late 1930s and settled in Baltimore. At some point, he briefly worked for McCormick. Eventually, the industrious immigrant managed to convince local cooks to use the seasoning and before long, he was successful.
McCormick Old Bay Seasoning, $3.79 from Target
Part of Old Bay’s charm lies in the success that the brand has found without much marketing. Its popularity is largely word-of-mouth and that gives it the appeal (and illusion) of a local secret. McCormick pointed out to Chowhound that Old Bay never produced a television advertisement until 2014. But the brand has spread rapidly—in 2017, roughly 8.5 million of those iconic blue and red and yellow cans were sold.
The packaging has changed over the years—most recently, a plastic redesign caused discontent on Reddit, with some suggesting people save the iconic metal can and refill it when buying new containers. But the bold, bright look of the packaging has stayed almost exactly the same and the ingredients have never been altered; the recipe blends 18 different herbs and spices, including mustard, celery salt, and paprika. It’s still made in the Baltimore area too.
These days, you can find variations including Old Bay with Garlic and Herbs, Old Bay HOT Seasoning, Old Bay with Blackened Seasoning, and low-sodium Old Bay for those watching their salt intake. But everyone knows the original blend is still the best.
The Cult of Old Bay
There are plenty of stories surrounding the brand—you’ll find no shortage of Old Bay tattoos in Maryland and Virginia where it’s a household staple.
The company also relayed a heartwarming story of a soldier who had the stuff shipped to Iraq while he was deployed.
In addition to their stand-alone success, Old Bay has teamed up with a handful of other companies to produce products inspired by the unmistakable taste. Herr’s offers Old Bay potato chips that I prefer to any other flavor on the shelf. Old Bay hot sauce is now available as well.
In the summers, Flying Dog brewery sells an Old Bay-inspired beer called Dead Rise:
Flying Dog Dead Rise Old Bay Beer, price and availability varies on Drizly
A number of clothing brands, including Simply Southern and Route One Apparel, sell Old Bay-themed outfits.
And, of course, the spice blend has spawned countless imitators; Chowhound has an Old Bay seasoning copycat recipe that we’re pretty proud of.
How to Use Old Bay
If you’re looking to use Old Bay in the traditional sense, there are plenty of options. On the back of an older can, you’ll notice three recipes, for steamed shrimp, crab cakes, and steamed crabs, or sometimes steamed shrimp, steamed crabs, and marinated chicken. In the 1950s, the company says that there was a salmon loaf recipe on the back of the can. Newer packaging sticks to the steamed crabs, with tips on other ways to use Old Bay:
When steaming crabs or shrimp, there are three schools of thought to the spice. Some chefs prefer to dump Old Bay directly in the pot when you first begin steaming your meal. This method serves up a wonderful treat as it allows the spice to cook right into the meat and gives it that added tinge. Others wait until the food is done cooking and dump it directly on top. This makes for a very aesthetic grub, but it seems a bit silly to waste all that wonderful orange magic on crab shells. A third option is to dip your crab meat and shrimp directly into the stuff once you’ve finished cooking—my personal favorite. On many tables, you’ll see bowls of Old Bay and white vinegar mixed together to blend a sort of paste that’s easy to apply and really brings out the tang of the stuff.
But the great thing about Old Bay is that it goes incredibly with anything. There are almost no bad meals where it’s an added bonus. Here are a few of the exceptional, unexpected places where it’s a wonderful addition:
Bloody Marys – The Old Bay Bloody Mary is a timeless favorite, perfect for starting off that brunch by the beach. The drink is so popular that even The Wall Street Journal scribbled a recipe.
Popcorn – If you’re bored of salting your popcorn, try sprinkling some Old Bay on it and enjoy. It works great with microwaved popcorn but if you’re feeling adventurous, we won’t judge if you sneak that yellow, orange, and blue tin into the movie theater to add to your jumbo bucket.
Deviled Eggs – Plenty of people add a dash of Old Bay to their deviled eggs and in plenty of neighborhoods, no backyard barbecue is complete without a plate of these.
Corn on the Cob – For some reason, corn on the cob and crabs just go together. In many restaurants they’re even served together. If you’re running low on the salt or butter, give your veggies a touch of Old Bay.
Header image by Chowhound.