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Old Bay is a type of seasoning made from 18 different herbs and spices, including mustard, celery salt, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper, paprika, and bay leaves.

If you grew up in a certain sliver of America near the Chesapeake Bay, Old Bay was holy nectar. You would’ve applied it to chicken, shrimp, fish, and — of course — crabs. But the story behind this East Coast taste is somewhat murky.

Let’s look at what Old Bay is, where it came from, how to make your own, and how to use it.

The spice blend has spawned countless imitators. We have an Old Bay seasoning copycat recipe that we’re pretty proud of.

You’ll need:

  • 2 tbsps ground bay leaves
  • 2 tbsps celery salt
  • 1 tbsp dry mustard
  • 2 tsps ground black pepper
  • 2 tsps ground ginger
  • 2 tsps sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp ground mace
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom

The steps: Mix ’em up. That’s it. That’s the tweet. Once you’ve combined all the ingredients, our copycat is ready to use.

Spice giant McCormick currently owns the brand, but they only bought the seasoning in 1990. According to a Saveur story from 2002, the blend was the brainchild of a German immigrant, Gustav Brunn, who lugged his spice grinder to the United States in the late 1930s and settled in Baltimore.

At some point, he briefly worked for McCormick. Eventually, Brunn managed to convince local cooks to use the seasoning, and before long he was successful.

Part of Old Bay’s charm lies in the success the brand has found without much marketing. Its popularity is largely through word of mouth, and that gives it the appeal (and illusion) of a local secret. Old Bay didn’t produce any television advertisements until 2014.

But the brand has spread rapidly. In 2017, roughly 8.5 million of those iconic blue, red, and yellow cans were sold.

The packaging has changed over the years. Most recently, a plastic redesign caused discontent on Reddit, with some users suggesting that people save the iconic metal can and refill it when buying new containers.

But the bold, bright look of the packaging has stayed almost exactly the same, and McCormick has never altered the ingredients. It’s still made in the Baltimore area too.

These days, you can find variations, including:

(But everyone knows the original blend is still the best.)

If you’re looking to use Old Bay in the traditional sense, there are plenty of options.

When steaming crabs or shrimp, there are three schools of thought on this spice blend:

1. Dump it into the pot when you start steaming

Some chefs prefer to dump Old Bay directly into the pot when they begin steaming the meal. This method serves up a wonderful treat, allowing the spice to cook right into the meat and giving it that added tinge.

2. Dump the spice on top when food is done

Others wait until the food is done cooking and then dump Old Bay directly on top. This makes for a very aesthetic grub, but it seems a bit silly to waste all that wonderful orange magic on crab shells.

3. Use Old Bay as a post-cooking dip

A third option is to dip your crabmeat and shrimp directly into the stuff once you’ve finished cooking. On many tables, you’ll see bowls of Old Bay and white vinegar combined into a sort of paste that’s easy to apply and really brings out the tang of the spice.

Old Bay pairs incredibly well with anything. There are almost no meal it can ruin. Here are a few of the exceptional, unexpected places where it’s a wonderful addition:

  • Bloody Mary. The Old Bay Bloody Mary is a timeless favorite, perfect for starting off that brunch by the beach. The drink is so popular that even The Wall Street Journal scribbled a recipe with Old Bay in it.
  • Popcorn. If you’re bored with salting your popcorn, try sprinkling some Old Bay on it and enjoy. It works great with microwaved popcorn, but hey, we won’t judge if you sneak that yellow, orange, and blue tin into a movie theater to add to your jumbo bucket. Here’s a great recipe for stovetop-popped Old Bay popcorn.
  • Deviled eggs. Plenty of people add a dash of Old Bay to their deviled eggs. In many neighborhoods, no backyard barbecue is complete without a plate of these.
  • French fries. It goes wonderfully on homemade french fries (or potato wedges). Try this Old Bay wedges recipe — you won’t regret it.
  • Corn on the cob. For some reason, corn on the cob and crabs just go together. In many restaurants, they’re even served together. If you’re running low on salt or butter, give your veggies a touch of Old Bay — this recipe does the trick.

There are plenty of stories surrounding the brand. You’ll find no shortage of Old Bay tattoos in Maryland and Virginia, where it’s a household staple.

The company also relayed a heartwarming story of a soldier who had the stuff shipped to Iraq while he was deployed.

In addition to their stand-alone success, Old Bay has teamed up with a handful of other companies to produce products inspired by the unmistakable taste. Herr’s offers Old Bay potato chips that might be better than any other flavor on the shelf. Old Bay hot sauce is now available as well.

A number of clothing brands, including Simply Southern and Route One Apparel, sell Old Bay-themed outfits.

Old Bay is a local secret turned pantry staple — an 18-spice blend containing bay leaves, mustard, celery salt, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper, and paprika.

You can make your own at home to sprinkle on crab, potatoes, popcorn, or pretty much anything you want to taste like Old Bay.

There are three main methods of using it. But whether you dump it into the pot at the start of a steam, dump it on meat at the end, or use it as a vinegary dip, Old Bay hits so many flavor notes.