The Untold Truth Of Old Bay Seasoning

Old Bay seasoning is a spice mix synonymous with Maryland and blue crabs. However, it can be found in pantries across the country and has plenty of uses outside of shellfish.

The spice mix was invented by an immigrant named Gustav Brunn who fled to the United States to get out of Nazi Germany, where he'd been released (for a hefty fee) from a concentration camp (via The Jewish Times). Brunn came prepared — in addition to a small amount of furniture, Brunn also took with him a spice mixer, which is today on display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Soon after Brunn arrived in Maryland he promptly developed a blend that contained 18 spices and named it after a ship that operated between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, across the Chesapeake Bay (via Culture Trip).

Back when Brunn invented the mix, crabs were so numerous and easy to catch in the Chesapeake Bay that bars would serve them for free, drenched in Old Bay, just so the patrons would buy more beer to quench their thirst after their salty shellfish snack (via Space Place).

What is Old Bay made from?

As with many widely loved spice mixes (the 11 herbs and spices Kentucky Fried Chicken uses on its chicken and has gone to great lengths to keep secret, for example, via Chicago Tribune), it's not entirely clear which spices and herbs make up the blend. While the primary ingredient is celery salt, and spices such as red pepper and black pepper are listed on today's label, the ingredients list doesn't add up to a full 18 (via Dollar General).

Even when an older label is examined, which lists cloves, ginger, cardamom, bay leaves, pimento, mace, cassia, and mustard seeds, it still doesn't add up to 18. According to his son, Gustav was worried that a competitor would copy the blend and steal it away from him so he added spices that others in the industry wouldn't easily guess.

"To his amazement, those minor things he put in there — the most unlikely things, including cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with crabs at all — gave a background bouquet that he couldn't have anticipated," said his 93-year-old son in a 2018 interview. "Old Bay, per se, was almost an accident."

Old Bay is bought by McCormick

While some of the ingredients are kept secret, people with allergies to alliums can feel safe eating it, as the company responded in the negative to a query on its website about whether there are any onions or garlic in the blend (via McCormick). They responded to another question, inquiring as to whether the blend contained MSG by saying, "No, Old Bay does not contain any flavor enhancers."

In 1990, McCormick & Company, which also distributes brands such as French's Mustard, Lawry's seasoning salt, and Frank's Red Hot Sauce, purchased the brand in 1990 (via McCormick). Initially, they never planned to distribute Old Bay outside of Maryland, but it developed such a strong following that they decided it was a savvy business move and began to expand. Still, the spice blend is manufactured just outside of Baltimore.

In addition to the original blend, Old Bay also offers a "hot" seasoning, a "blackened" seasoning, and a cocktail sauce (via Old Bay).

Old Bay is versatile is outside of seafood

It's used with a fervor for seasoning shellfish like crabs and shrimp that are common fare in Maryland. However, the box itself also suggests that it be used as a seasoning for chicken, and others have gotten even more creative. Flying Dog Brewery made an Old Bay-flavored ale, you can find ice cream and caramels flavored with the blend.

It's also popular as a topping for popcorn, and Bloody Marys in Maryland are commonly seasoned with an Old Bay rim. Corn on the cob, wings, and potato salad are also common uses. The company website provides a number of recipes as well including a pasta salad, a spicy dip, and soups. 

In 2017, the company changed from the iconic metal tin in which it was packaged for many years to plastic containers to reduce costs. This resulted in quite a ruckus. A large number of customers left comments on the brand's page decrying the switch.