Spice Hunting: Old Bay
Adventurous eaters are quickly recognizing that cuisines are rarely national. Money matters here: poor regions exhibit a wholly different culinary creativity from wealthier ones. As does geography—for most of human history, nothing determined what we ate so readily as the fickleness of local weather and the happenstance of nearby flora and fauna. Despite all that, some spices and spice blends have grown to such prominence that it's hard not to associate them with a country's cuisine. To use garam masala is to cook, on some level, Indian. The same for five spice powder and Chinese food. And the same for Old Bay. To eat Old Bay is to eat American.
Which we should do with pride. Old Bay represents some of our culture's finest culinary efforts: impeccable lobster, dressed in butter with an Old Bay shake; crab, steamed and tumbled with lightly spiced mayonnaise. My own culinary region, New York, lies between two seafood paradises: It's too far down the coast to lay claim to Maine's traditions, yet still very much The North relative to the Chesapeake, Old Bay's original home (Baltimore, Maryland specifically). But with Old Bay in my pantry I can fool myself, if only for a meal, that I'm native to such crustacean splendor.
What is Old Bay?
Old Bay is well known as a seafood seasoning. Less well-known is what goes into it. Besides salt, its principal flavors are celery seed and paprika. But there's a host of sweet spices to boot: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, mace (mace!), among others. The blend receives some kick from black pepper and mustard seed and some serenity from bay leaf. Its flavor is remarkably balanced, opening the door to a range of culinary possibilities. That is, of course, if you ever decide to move past a lobster roll with a thin coat of mayo with some diced celery and Old Bay on a toasted bun. If you didn't, I wouldn't blame you: This spice blend pulls its weight with that one dish alone.
How to use Old Bay
Should you decide to branch out from the obvious seafood choices, look to other hallmarks of American cuisine as your guide. Three, in particular, speak out to me: casseroles, pickling, and deep fried food. Regarding the first, Old Bay marries beautifully to dairy in creamy casseroles. It was a key ingredient in my Thanksgiving starch bomb of carrots, turnips, and pearl onions stewed in bechamel with a buttermilk biscuit topping. Potato gratins beg for Old Bay, as does the mild cheddar that binds so many chicken/tuna-and-grain casseroles.
The paprika in Old Bay plays nicely into flour dredges for fried chicken—all the sweet spices don't hurt either. Deep fried fish would also be appropriate of course, especially when beer-battered. The celery seed brings out maritime flavors sometimes lost during frying.
The strong celery taste is also perfect with kosher dill pickles, though if you intend to make them from scratch keep in mind the salt content of the Old Bay could throw off your recipe. Easier is to add a dash to a vinegar pickle (especially one made with apple cider vinegar). Easier still is making quick pickles: shave your vegetables as thinly as possible, lay them on paper towels, and dust liberally with Old Bay. Wait half an hour, blot away excess moisture, and season with some sugar to taste—(almost) instant pickles! Or you could do what I did in this week's recipe and deep fry your pickles, battered with Old Bay.
Beyond these three powerful threads of the American culinary experience, Old Bay is as American as spices come. It was invented by a German immigrant who was able to make a killing on the market. It's a triumph of mass-production: a high-quality product with clever packaging and distribution design (the only time I've had trouble finding Old Bay was when it was next to the seafood counter rather than the spice aisle) that hasn't suffered from its success. It's even got a Twitter account. So do your kitchen some patriotic good and make some room for this old standard, a true gold lion of American cuisine.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter.