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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Making Old Bay Seasoning (and why I love keeping whole spices in the cupboard)

Last Friday, I made a large pot of bean and ham soup for dinner. I knew I wanted to make biscuits as a side to go with the soup. And I had a hankering for Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits.

In looking at recipes for cheddar bay biscuits, I discovered that I needed Old Bay seasoning. (Well, duh, cheddar BAY biscuits, old BAY seasoning.)

Old Bay Seasoning would be one of those spice blends that I wouldn't use particularly much, as I don't cook much seafood. So, while I've always liked their colorful canisters in the supermarket, I've never actually bought any OBS.

But, I was sure I had most of the ingredients to make some sort of version of OBS, and could conjure up something along the lines of the famed Red Lobster biscuits.

Next I looked up a recipe for Old Bay Seasoning, and lo and behold, I had some form of every single ingredient listed. Now how often does that happen?!

So, I made a tiny batch of OBS in my spice grinder (coffee grinder, repurposed), and used some to top my biscuits. Yum, they were good! I'll be making these biscuits a few times in the near future.

Now, the Old Bay brand of Old Bay Seasoning is made from 18 different herbs and spices. The recipe that I used only had 8 different herbs and spices. But my homemade version was very tasty. And making just a small amount, is about right for my use.

There's not much to making this spice blend. You measure the ingredients into your coffee/spice grinder, and whirr to a powder. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 years, for best flavor.

Here's what I used:

the equivalent of 2 bay leaves (I fished out a bunch of bay leaf pieces from my pickling spice blend)
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (I've been meaning to use those up)
just over an 1/8 teaspoon of whole cardamom seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground mustard
1 or 2 whole cloves (I used 2 very small whole cloves)
3/8 teaspoon paprika
just over 1/16 teaspoon ground mace

This made a little over 1 tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning. A recipe of Cheddar Bay biscuits only uses 1/4 teaspoon of OBS, so it looks like I've got enough to make several batches of those tasty biscuits.

About whole spices as opposed to ground spices

Whole spices can be more economical, in the long run. In particular, if you don't use that spice very often. Whole spices retain more of their essence for a longer period of time, than ground. Up to twice as long.

If I don't think I'll use a spice very often, I try to buy what I'll need, but often end up with extra. It could be a year or more until I need that spice again.

The other issue I've encountered with pre-ground spices is some of them can become cake-y (due to absorbing moisture -- my ground cloves became cake-y to the point I had to throw them out).

Ground spices are recommended to be used within a couple of years. Whereas, whole spices can retain flavor for up to 5 or 6 years, depending on variety (cloves, cinnamon and pepper can last a very long time, if whole). Yet they taste, so "fresh" when you finally grind them.

A good example for myself is my whole nutmegs. I bought these about 5 years ago, and "shave" off a tiny amount for recipes, as I need. They taste as good today, as they did when I bought them. So, for spices I don't use often, whole spices have better keeping quality. And I can often find them in the bulk, scoop-your-own section and just buy a tiny baggie of what I need.

Grinding whole spices can be done in a small food processor, a coffee grinder or with mortar and pestle. If I'm just crushing some celery seed to add to a tomato sauce or soup, I'll use the mortar and pestle. For larger amounts of spice, or if I want a finer grind, then I use the coffee grinder. I don't wash this out, but use a pastry brush to sweep out the grinder after each use. (If I'm going to be grinding something like granulated sugar into superfine, then I'll wipe the grinder out, and maybe grind a tablespoon of corn meal first, just to clean it out.)

I do opt for convenience with the spices that I use frequently, such as ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground mustard, ground cumin, curry powder and chili powder. I buy these ground spices in the large canisters from Cash & Carry, at a price that beats buying whole spices, in some cases. (Whole cinnamon sticks can be pricey, if I just want to grind them up to use ground.)

So, my spice cupboard contains a mix of whole and ground spices. I do love that I keep as many varieties in whole form as I do. I am often pleasantly surprised that I have just about every spice called for in recipes.


  1. I make my own taco seasoning mix and I've been wanting to make my own spaghetti/lasagna seasoning mix but haven't yet.

    I've not kept many whole spices on hand but I'm thinking I should. Spices in those little jars are just so expensive!

    1. Good for you, Linda, for making your own seasoning blends! Those little packets are so overpriced!

      Do you have a store in your area, where you can scoop your own herbs and spices, and only buy what you need at a time? They're a better deal than the spices/herbs in the baking section, in tiny canisters. But not as good a deal as the jumbo restaurant-size containers that you find at Costco or Sam's Club.

  2. Sounds yummy! I've been making my own seasoning mixes (for tacos, fajitas, etc.) as well--you know me, I like to control my ingredients! So many mixes are high in sodium and we don't need that.

    1. Hi Kris,
      Good for you, for being so proactive in your family's nutrition!
      You are so right! Those pre-made seasoning packets are high the stuff that we don't need. More salt than is needed, is added to give the seasoning packets "favor". But if you just use more of the spices, then there's plenty of flavor with little sodium.

      These packets also contain ingredients that some of us have to be careful about consuming. The McCormick's taco seasoning contains whey, which is dairy, and can be problematic for some of us. And I often see listings like "Natural Flavor", but nothing more specific. No telling what those "natural flavors" are. I would just rather that they tell me what those ingredients are, or could be (if it varies for batch or season).

  3. My spice storage cupboard belongs in the dark ages. They probably all need to be thrown out, but occasionally they come in didn't know I had that spice but it was there. So that prevents me from throwing anything away. I read awhile ago that spices develop molds and should not be kept too long. If it turns color or starts looking bad, of course I throw it out. I bought so many Costco sized spices back when I cooked more, maybe these are over 10 years old...yikes!!

    I made my own seasoned salt to try on bean patties and they helped round out the flavor. Then I found a small jar of the stuff in the back of my cupboard lol

    Thanks for the tip about buying whole spices. I will keep that in mind when shopping for spices, also grinding the whole spices would make perfect use of our now unused coffee grinder.


    1. Hi YHF,
      Didn't we all buy coffee grinders a couple of decades back, thinking that of course, we'd be grinding our coffee beans every morning?!

      I have a confession, with the state of my spice cabinet -- there's a Costco-size container of black pepper, from about 15 years ago, lurking in there. I've almost finished it, but can't bring myself to just throw it out, cuz then I'd have to buy another Costco-size container of black pepper, to take its place (which would linger for another decade). You're not alone in the hoarding of large containers of spices! LOL!

      Good use of spices in the seasoned salt! Maybe some of them will be used up soon!

  4. Thanks for the recipe. I live in NZ and often see recipes calling for Old Bay seasoning. Didn't know what it was as we don't have it here. My other query regarding US food items is::
    Do you have a recipe for Graham Crackers and what exactly are they akin to. Some say they are like our digestive biscuits (what you call cookies we call biscuits and what you call biscuits we call scones) Our heritage is british based hence the names we use.

    1. Hi Adrienne,
      Oh, Old Bay Seasoning is from the Atlantic coast region of the US, so no wonder not exactly a popular seasoning in NZ!!

      Yes, I make graham crackers a lot. Here's the recipe that I cut off a brown sugar box years ago.

      Graham crackers are like a not-too-sweet, crisp cookie, made with whole wheat flour. The leaven is baking soda and baking powder, so no egg. Perhaps a bit like digestive biscuits. The digestive biscuits that I've had were white flour, and lighter/crispier, than graham crackers, but about as sweet. Homemade graham crackers are more dense and sturdy than commercial graham crackers. But they do work for s'mores and graham cracker pie crusts. They're pretty easy to make, too, and keep in a tin for a couple of weeks, or frozen for months.

  5. I had never heard of Old Bay Seasoning until my sister moved to Maryland. It was developed there as a seasoning for crabs in 1939 and is produced by McCormick Spice Company in Baltimore.

    For many locals, it is a necessary seasoning for many things, including the seafood coming out of the Chesapeake Bay, and can't be replaced. However, if it was used in biscuits, I wonder if they could tell the difference between your homemade version and the official one?

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Thanks for the info on OBS. I knew it was regional to the Atlantic seaboard, but wasn't sure which part.

      I'm not sure which spices were left out the the version I made, compared the the original. I think I've seen recipes that call for some sweet spices, like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, and more peppers, like white pepper and red pepper flakes. So, I could definitely see how someone very familiar with the original would be able to tell the difference.

      But all that said, I do like the version that I made for the purpose I made it. Those biscuits were good stuff! I only made a half batch that night, thinking we wouldn't want that many biscuits with our soup. Everyone at the table was looking around for more, when the first round was finished. I'm making another batch later this week, and will make the full recipe.

  6. Oh, how I wish you'd written this post before I broke down and bought Old Bay. That stuff is expensive! I have a fish cake recipe that calls for it. My own attempt at mixing a substitute was AWEFUL.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Oh no! Was it the flavor or the mixing/grinding of it all?

      It IS expensive, especially for something that I might only use a little of, and then have it linger in the cabinet for years. Oh well, now that you have some of the authentic Old Bay, you can make some of Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Those are quite delicious, and simple to do, too. It's a rich biscuit dough, with grated cheddar mixed in. Then when they come out of the oven, brush or spoon a mixture of 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon of OBS, over each hot biscuit.


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