It sits in every coastal kitchen cabinet. It’s sprinkled on crustaceans and popcorn, in shrimp boils and Bloody Marys. But what's really in Maryland’s quintessential spice blend?

By Mary Tomlinson
December 11, 2017
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Old Bay Seasoning, the self-proclaimed “definitive seafood spice,” holds a coveted spot in spice racks in and around its home state of Maryland. And since 2010, its popularity has grown as those outside the Old Line State discover the versatility of this seafood seasoning.

The spice blend first came to Baltimore in 1939 when spice merchant Gustav Brunn narrowly escaped Nazi Germany and sailed to the U.S. Using a small spice grinder he brought from his home country, Brunn combined 18 spices and herbs to make the now renowned recipe. Though originally branded “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning" (straight to the point, huh?), he later renamed his product after a steamship line that traveled the Chesapeake between Maryland and Virginia.

Before he invented his signature recipe blend, Brunn actually worked for modern-day spice behemoth McCormick—until getting fired for his lack of English skills. In a twist of fate, McCormick purchased Old Bay in 1990, further cementing the product in kitchens across the country.

Related: How to Make a Classic Shrimp Boil:

So What’s Really In Old Bay?

Like the Colonel’s top-secret chicken recipe, Old Bay is extremely guarded about the contents of its lauded spice blend. The side of its iconic yellow tin only lists celery salt, red pepper, black pepper, and paprika. But what about the remaining 14 classified ingredients?

No one outside of Old Bay knows for sure, but many a copycat have attempted to crack the seasoning code, with kitchen sleuths suggesting a blend of celery salt, mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika. Even spice and seasoning master Aliza Green (author of Field Guide to Herbs & Spices and The Magic of Spice Blends) has proposed her take on the legendary recipe.

Courtesy of Flying Dog Brewery

The Most Amazing Old Bay-Infused Foods

Instead of tinkering with Gustav Brunn’s masterpiece, some Old Bay enthusiasts have turned the mid-Atlantic seasoning into crazy-delicious (and some just crazy) concoctions. Maryland brewery, Flying Dog, produces a seasonal Old Bay summer ale. Sweet Cascades Chocolatier out of Ellicott City whips up a dark Belgian truffle with a sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning. And Pennsylvania snack food company Herr’s has been making an Old Bay potato chip for 30 years. But the wackiest Old Bay creation comes from the world of desserts: an Old Bay crab cake ice cream sandwich.

Our Best Old Bay Recipes

While we don’t have recommendations for any Old Bay desserts, we do have a delicious round-up of Coastal Living recipes that feature the legendary seafood seasoning. From the first sip of your Bloody Mary with Old Bay rim salt to the last scoop of our amazing shrimp boil nachos, you’re sure to get lots of good use out of Maryland’s finest. 

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Prop Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer

Brown Butter Crab Benedict (above): Break out the fresh crabmeat and you’ve got a satisfying New England breakfast.

Photo: Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey

Shrimp Boil Nachos (above): Serve this shrimp-boil mixture over kettle-cooked potato chips, which are sturdy enough to hold every last delicious bit of barbecued shrimp, Andouille, and Old Bay-sprinkled corn.

Photo: Greg DuPree; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer

Shrimp Boil Butter (above): Add our delicious compound butter to your recipe repertoire and an effortless midweek meal will always be at your fingertips.

Photo: Stephen DeVries; Food Styling: Erin Merhar 

Bloody Mary Rim Salt (above): Before you pile on your over-the-top accouterments (Bacon! Pickles! Boiled Shrimp!), load up on this tasty rim salt with a sprinkle of Old Bay mixed in.  

Photo: Greg DuPree; Styling: Rachel Burrow and Claire Spollen

Mini Shrimp Rolls (above): A freshly toasted bun (trim top-slit hot dog buns for a snackable mini sandwich) is the ultimate carrier for our Old Bay-seasoned shrimp rolls.