What is Lawry’s Seasoning Salt? To tell the truth, I had no idea, and didn’t have any in the house. Then someone told me that this stuff was the seasoning for the dreaded Taco Time Mexi Fries – I happen to like those evil little things, so I bought some Lawry’s to try it out. While it turned out that my source was most definitely mistaken, the blend does have a nice flavor profile, and it’s rather venerable stuff – So I thought, why not dive in and see what makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?
The blend came to life back in 1938, as seasoning for prime rib beef at Lawry’s namesake restaurant in Beverly Hills, (Which is still around, by the way, and there’s a good few more branches now). Described as a, ‘unique blend of salt, spices and herbs,’ it’s a proprietary blend, (just like the stuff that graces those Mexi Fries). While the company ain’t givin’ it all up, they go so far as to list, ‘SALT, SUGAR, SPICES (INCLUDING PAPRIKA AND TURMERIC), ONION, CORNSTARCH, GARLIC, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING), NATURAL FLAVOR, PAPRIKA OLEORESIN (FOR COLOR). Contains no MSG.’ It’s an interesting mix, not the least because of the absence of ground pepper.
Now, that paprika oleoresin is nothing more than an oil-soluble extract from chiles – a very common coloring agent, so no big deal there. Of course, if you want to dissect this stuff to recreate it, you need more than just ‘spices, including…’ and ‘natural flavors’ to work from – But that’s not as easy to come by as you’d think – Obviously, companies protect their proprietary recipes carefully, and sometimes they don’t tell you what’s in there because they don’t particularly want you to know – Turns out both are the case with this stuff.
To dissect stuff like this, what I do is open the carton and pour it into a bowl so I can look at it, feel it, smell it, and start getting a better idea of what’s actually in there. With the Lawry’s it wasn’t as easy as some others I’ve dug into – The mix is pretty fine, making it harder to isolate and taste individual components. I’ll do anything from vibrating the blend different ways to encourage separation, to sifting and picking directly from the mix. And on top of all that, I certainly look online to see what others might have found before me.
As far as the latter pursuit goes, it turns out that there are two slightly different wanna be versions of the blend out there – and then a whole lot of people just copied one or the other verbatim. What I got out of it was a pretty good baseline mix, and three very cool little mysteries that absolutely no one had really properly discussed, let alone figured out – So, more about that.
What I dissected, tasted, saw, and smelled tells me that the base mix for this stuff is salt, sugar, celery leaf, paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne, turmeric, and cornstarch – A pretty standard dry rub mix, albeit the turmeric and cornstarch are interesting – More on that shortly. The tricalcium phosphate is there to prevent caking, and it’s the exact same stuff I use it all our blends – It’s basically a purified, powdered rock, and occurs naturally in cow’s milk. That pretty much takes care of the spices, so on to those little mysteries I mentioned.
When you look up ‘what’s in Lawry’s seasoning salt,’ you’ll find all the stuff I mentioned, but when you try to dig deeper, you’ll not find very much. Looking into the ‘natural flavor’ thing was the least fruitful of all, but I did get there, and the answer shows in spades why the search was so difficult. A very persistent blogger, who loved the stuff, became concerned enough to start asking uncomfortable questions. She ended up talking to the Consumer Affairs department at McCormick, the maker of the blend. After significant hemming and hawing, they ponied up that the ‘natural flavors’ were in fact partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil – AKA, undisclosed trans fats. Said blogger then went to the FDA to ask how such things could be left undisclosed, or euphemistically termed ‘natural flavors’ – The FDA rep’s response was that ‘the oils are natural.’ When the blogger pointed out how hydrogenation pretty much trumps their initial state, she was told she was ‘free to not buy the product if she wished’ – Your Federal gummint in action, folks… in any case, yes, I think the trick they pulled is bullshit, but it is what it is. So, mystery #1 is basically a great reason to engineer a better analog at home.
The next What’s That In There For item is cornstarch. Innocuous enough, but not a thing you see in a lot of seasoning blends – So what is the deal? Internet musings focused on cornstarch as a thickener, or as aid to developing a nice crust on a protein. Both are true enough for the stuff, but this is not the case in the trace amounts it’s found within this blend. What I believe cornstarch is doing here is much more subtle and a very neat trick indeed – It’s called velveting. In certain Chinese regional recipes, a small amount of cornstarch is added to the sauce for a protein, most often as part of a marinade. When the protein is subsequently cooked, the cornstarch combines with meat juices to form a thin barrier layer – This layer acts to seal moisture into the meat, and results in a notably juicier final product. It’s especially effective for high heat cooking, like grilling, broiling, or stir frying. Cool mystery #2.
The third cool thing is turmeric. As mentioned, this isn’t an ingredient you see much in seasoning blends, and it may just be the je ne sais quoi that sets Lawry’s apart. Turmeric, Curcuma longa), is a rhizome, like ginger, and in fact it’s in the same family, Zingiberaceae. These days you can sometimes find it in mainstream grocery stores – I’ve found it Fred Meyer more than once. It looks much like ginger on the outside, but when you slice into it, there’s that gorgeous dark orange colored flesh, and a scent that is to me much deeper and more nuanced than its more popular cousin. While ginger is all about heat and power, turmeric is softer and subtler – bitter, peppery, musty, and mustardy beneath the almost carroty primary notes – It’s stunningly good stuff, and it’s been around in Asian medicine and cooking for a long time. While I noted that it’s not common in spice blends, that meant not common here – For my mind, the most glorious example of turmeric in a mix comes from India and North Africa, where you’ll find it mixed with curry, cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, or maybe black pepper, clove, and nutmeg – Lots going on in those things.
Any way you shake it, Lawry’s is a pretty cool blend. While I couldn’t find who it was who initially developed this blend, I’ll tell you this – Between the cornstarch and the turmeric, I’d bet that the Chef was either Asian, or at least versed in Asian cuisines, and we’re the richer for their contribution. This stuff is well worth using as a basis for experimentation and development into something personal to you, which is exactly what I did. Below you’ll find my swing on the blend, tweaked to my liking, but true to its roots – It’s got quite a bit less sugar, and less salt overall than the original, with a couple of other twists. You’ll notice that the original stuff is quite red – That’s the paprika oleoresin, which again is nothing more than a colorant. I subbed annatto seed, which adds a bit of color, and an earthy note as well. Give it a try and then go wild.
Urban’s Lawry-Like Blend
1⁄3 Cup fine Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
2 teaspoons Bakers Sugar
2 teaspoons dried Celery Leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons Turmeric
1 1⁄2 teaspoons Arrowroot
1 teaspoon Tricalcium Phosphate
1 teaspoon granulated Onion
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground Chile (I used Tabasco’s, use whatever you like)
Combine all ingredients and mix well.
Pour into a single mesh strainer over a second bowl and run the blend through, discarding anything that won’t pass.
Store in an airtight glass container.