Do you know Old Bay seasoning? If so, it’s not unlikely that you have some in your cabinet for use specifically with crab or shrimp boils. If you don’t know if it, ya aughta, ‘cause it’s a venerable mix – and if you do, you aughta let it out to play more. Old Bay is hugely popular on the east coast, from New England to the gulf, with an epicenter in Baltimore, where it was first made. The story of its creation is one of great triumph over adversity, to say the least.
Gustav Brunn, a German Jew, founded the Baltimore Spice Company in 1939, with the Old Bay seasoning blend as his flagship – Yet his epic journey didn’t start there, it landed there. Brunn had owned a wholesale spice business in Worthheim, Germany since shortly after WWI, but the rapid rise of fascism and the Nazi party forced a move to Frankfurt. There, on Kristallnacht, he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. His wife paid a massive bribe to get him released, and they immediately fled to the U.S.
With his broad experience, he was hired by McCormick, where he worked for a grand total of two days – when it was discovered Brunn was Jewish, he was fired. That was the impetus for his founding his own company and the blending of Old Bay, the ‘Delicious Shrimp and Crab Seasoning,’ named after a passenger liner that plied the Chesapeake Bay. It’s beyond ironic that the rights to his iconic seasoning blend were bought out in 1990 by none other than McCormick. Personally, that’s all that I need to know to want to honor the blend at home.
As mentioned, many an Old Bay user hauls it out exclusively for crab or shrimp – While Gustav won’t roll over in his grave over that, we could all get a lot more creative with this stuff, and on the eastern seaboard, they do – You’ll find Old Bay seasoned beef, chicken, pork, fish, soups, stews, peanuts, popcorn, corn on the cob, deviled eggs, potato salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, bean salad, scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, potato chips, a raft of dips and sauces, bloody mary mixes, and the rims of margarita glasses – and that’s just for starters.
Like many a proprietary spice blend, they’re not giving away an exact recipe you can follow – McCormick claims 18 ingredients in the mix, so figuring those out, plus ratios, is quite a job – which is why you’ll be far happier leaving the heavy lifting to idiots like me. We know that 3 or 4 ingredients in the commercial blend are preservatives and anti-caking agents that they don’t have to list (and we don’t need), so the sweet spot is 14.
Spice blends don’t need to follow the List Ingredients In Order of Percentage of the Whole Mix rule like most foods do, so long as what they include are GRAS ingredients, (Generally Accepted As Safe), hence we see ‘spices’ instead of specifics.
What they do admit to has varied over the years with packaging – the most common version is, ‘celery salt, spices (including red and black pepper) and paprika.’ An older version offered, ‘celery salt, spices (including mustard, pepper, laurel leaves, clove, pimento, mace, cardamom, cassia) and paprika.
Taste it and the major players are fairly well evident – celery salt, paprika, and pepper are definite top notes, with mustard and bay laurel as majors, and the warm spices – clove, cinnamon, cardamom, mace, and so on, are minors. Take a look at the color of the blend, and it’ll substantiate that list and my ratios.
You can use ground or whole spices – either way, you’ll need to grind the whole stuff (leaves, etc) prior to blending. Make sure your ingredients are fresh, of course. This blend is what I think is very close to the original – and what I like best – You get to tweak yours as you see fit.
Urban’s Faux Old Bay
1 Tablespoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Sweet Paprika (Smoked or Hot are fine if you prefer)
1 Tablespoon dried Celery Leaf (celery seed will do)
2 teaspoons Black Pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Dry Mustard
5-6 Turkish Bay Leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Chile Powder (mild or hot)
1/2 teaspoon ground Ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground Cloves
1/8 teaspoon Black Cardamom
1/8 teaspoon Allspice
1/8 teaspoon Mace
Grind whole spices and leaves, then blend all ingredients thoroughly.
Store in an airtight glass container, away from heat a d bright light.