What’s in the Old Bay dressing and recipe to make your own blend

The Old Bay dressing is a favorite of Maryland around the world. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Old Bay’s classic fish dressing may be synonymous with summer and steamed crab, but it’s packed with not only bold flavors, but history as well. The spice blend has become decidedly on trend, going from strictly sea fish to being dumped on eggs or paired with popular snacks and condiments, from red fish to hot sauce.

For those who grew up near Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, there is 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 1930s,” shares Joyce White, a food historian based in Annapolis, Md. “The spice blend is based on a centuries-old custom of mixing together sweet and salty ground spices.”

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

A recipe for cooking pepper appeared in the book 50 years in a Maryland kitchen: 430 authentic regional recipes. (Photo: Joyce White)

“This flavor combination was and still is very popular in Asia, but it didn’t develop in medieval Europe until spices from Asia started being imported more regularly,” White tells Yahoo Life. “Because the sweet spices from the Spice Islands and other parts of Asia were traded overland from one buyer to another on the journey west, they were extraordinarily expensive once they reached Western Europe. They were, therefore, the status symbol of the day. “

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

“Once spices became more affordable, from the mid to late 18th century, sweet spices were often, but not always, extracted from savory recipes,” explains White. “However, this medieval combination still holds true in Western dishes and Old Bay is a good example of it.”

Baltimore’s many crab and seafood houses have begun to give a twist to creation with secret blends of herbs and spices. At the time, the flavor profile could be more closely compared to pickled seasonings.

So what’s in this mix? We don’t know exactly, but we have some ideas.

“Old Bay apparently contains sweet spices like ginger, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cloves and cardamom,” says White. “The salty spices are mustard, paprika, celery salt, bay leaf, black pepper and chilli flakes”.

Old Bay is known for its distinct taste that combines notes of salt and pepper with a hint of smoke. While there’s nothing quite like the seasoning once tried, its distant cousins ​​and substitutes include Cajun Seasoning, Zatarain’s Crab Boil, and Chinese Five Spices.

The now iconic spice mix was acquired by the McCormick Company when it entered the spice business in 1896, bringing store-bought Old Bay to home cooks around the world. It is now more commonly known 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 wannabes will put it on anything from crab cakes and boiled shrimp to French fries and chips.

“I grew up putting Old Bay on everything from french fries to wings to my popcorn,” Louie Silverio tells Yahoo Life. The 34-year-old proudly displays Baltimore’s booming food scene on his Instagram page, @bmorefood, which he started in 2015.

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

Aside from a personal connection, why does he love the dressing so much? “It’s the perfect combination of salt and spice that makes everything sprinkled on it palatable,” he says.

While Silverio appreciates the traditional uses of Old Bay, his favorite dish in Baltimore that uses Old Bay is the famous crab cake from Matthew’s Pizza, a local institution since 1943. The dish combines 100% backfin crab meat, grated mozzarella handmade, imported reggiano cheese, caramelized onions and, of course, Old Bay seasoning.

Thanks in part to the McCormick mega-corporation’s deep marketing pockets, the spice has gained momentum globally. Beyond Old Bay’s wildly imaginative uses, hyperregional food has received an eye in recent years, partnering with a number of brands produced nationally and globally, including Chips by LayHerr’s Old Bay Seasoned Cheese Curls and its newest mashup with baked cheese crackers Red fish.

The limited edition version of Goldfish topped with Old Bay was met with overwhelming favorable reviews praising its balance of flavor. “I like it very much”, adds Silverio. “It’s not overly seasoned and goes very well with the original flavor of the red fish.”

One of the most interesting collaborations can be attributed to Flying Dog Brewery, a craft brewery founded in Frederick, Md. Dead Rise Summer Ale, an Old Bay aged beer, pays homage to the state’s summer crab culture and its residents’ almost fanatical obsession with the spice. It is also the only brewing 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)

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 toppings came up with the idea of ​​an Old Bay beer and we just loved it,” shares Ben Savage, chief marketing officer at 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 of beer that was originally released to honor their 75th anniversary “.

The thirst-quenching release isn’t just delicious but does good in supporting the crab industry – a portion of the proceeds are donated to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’s True Blue program, an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness of the struggling industry.

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

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