Test Kitchen Surprise: Mike Rowe Was Right!

Things just got spicy in my test kitchen. Mike Rowe took on Old Bay in a recent episode of Dirty Jobs, and even though Mike is from Overlea and ought to know better, he was flirting with the third rail. But was he right? I opened up my test kitchen to find out for myself, with a spice taste test.

Like most Marylanders, Old Bay runs in my veins. It is a spice that was first sold in 1939 by the Baltimore Spice Company and quickly gained a loyal following. The McCormick Spice Company bought the rights to the Old Bay brand and recipe in 1990 and they’ve since begun shamelessly marketing it in many forms, but you still can’t go wrong with the basic tin of Old Bay. When I buy Old Bay, I don’t get the dainty little 1 or 2 oz containers most of my spices come in. You know, the bottles and tins that you use once or twice that then sit nearly full in your spice cabinet for years until you eventually get around to tossing them out, only to buy more the next time a recipe calls for it. I have many spices in my cabinet that fall into that category, but Old Bay isn’t one of them. I buy Old Bay by the pound, and as a native Marylander, I put it on everything. And even buying it by the pound, Old Bay never lasts long enough in my kitchen to expire.

Leave it to Mike Rowe to bust my bubble. On a recent episode of his Dirty Jobs show, Mike informed me and a good many other Marylanders that the crabs we grew up with and love to pick every summer aren’t spiced with Old Bay. Most crab houses, according to Mike’s show, use J.O. Spice Company’s No. 2 blend when they steam their crabs and not Old Bay. My first reaction was that this was spice heresy, but something told me Mike just might be right.

I did a little poking around on the internet and found that the J.O. Spice Company’s No. 2 blend is almost as old as Old Bay, hitting the Baltimore marketplace in 1945. It was quickly adopted by most crab shacks as their go to spice for steamed crabs. I didn’t know that. Learning that the crabs I’ve loved every summer, less often these days as they have gotten so expensive, are smothered in something other than Old Bay was a shock.

I like Mike Rowe and the working-class life he champions, and I have no reason to doubt him. But as a culinary snob, I had to prove to myself that the crabs I love aren’t spiced with Old Bay. I went to the J.O. Spice Company’s web site and found that I could order their J.O. Spice No. 2 and, for a modest shipping charge, have it delivered to my house. Even though they sell it in boxes weighing tens of pounds, I limited myself to a modest 12 oz. bottle. I also picked up some of their J.O. Spice No. 1 which they market as an all-purpose seafood and snack spice blend…I was already paying for shipping so why not?

When my spices arrived, I did my taste test. First off, let me just say I didn’t need a taste test to tell me these two spice blends were different…they look different. The Old Bay has that bright reddish orange color that I associate with crabs, with a uniform consistency in texture. The J.O. blend is paler with large flakes of salt. It also looked an awful lot like the spice that covers the crabs I get from my favorite crab shack. The J.O. No. 1 blend was closer to the Old Bay in consistency of texture, but still more pale in color. It was time to put the blends to the test…the taste test.

I put a pinch of J.O. No. 2 on my tongue, let it melt in my mouth and mentally processed, analyzed, and sorted the flavors. I tried a pinch of McCormick’s Old Bay and lastly, I sampled the J.O. No. 1 blend. And then I repeated it, though I didn’t need to. I knew as soon as the first pinch of J.O. No. 2 dissolved in my mouth that Mike Rowe was right. J.O. No. 2 has a very distinctive, and VERY salty, flavor profile that is 100% what I love about steamed Chesapeake Bay blues. The Old Bay flavors are similar, but only to a point.

I use Old Bay in everything, but J.O. No. 2 has one use and one use only…steamed crabs. My shipment came with an information leaflet that said as much, but so did my palate. The large flake salt it contains is designed to adhere to the crab shell throughout the steaming process and then rub off on your fingers as you pick the crabs. The spice gets into your mouth from your fingers as you shove those jumbo lumps of backfin meat into your mouth. The blend is way too harsh to be incorporated into any recipe, but that’s where J.O. No. 1 comes in.

There really is no comparison between Old Bay and J.O. No. 2. The real similarity comes between Old Bay and J.O. No. 1, both of which are intended to be used in a recipe to enhance the natural flavors of other ingredients. To my palate, McCormick’s Old Bay carries more paprika and cumin notes as well as celery, probably more chili as well. It tastes like a salty version of the spice blend I make up for my chili. The J.O. No. 1 is a more complex blend with a better balance of what I’ll call soft notes. Once you get past the red and black pepper, the chili, mustard, cumin and celery seed all of which hit you up front, you start to get more nuanced flavors like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and crushed bay leaf. I don’t know which, if any, of those spices are actually in either Old Bay or J.O. No. 1, but that’s what I tasted.

I’ll reserve my J.O. No. 2 for crabs, but I have big plans for my J.O. No. 1. I’ll start with steamed shrimp, and then I’ll use it the next time I make my crab cake recipe, and from there I might even add it to my pork spice rub. And of course, when Maryland sweet corn season comes around, I’ll be using it on my corn and probably a few other fresh, locally grown veggies as well. One caution…though it isn’t as heavy on the salt as J.O. No. 2, it is still saltier than Old Bay. And I’m OK with that.

I don’t think I’ll be tossing my big can of Old Bay anytime soon. Hey…I’m from Maryland. We put Old Bay on everything. Even ice cream! But my Old Bay just might find its place as the centerpiece of my spice cabinet supplanted by something with a J.O. Spice Company label on it.

I have to say a heartfelt Thank You to Mike Rowe for all he does to help educate us in so many ways, and in particular for setting the record straight about Maryland crabs and J.O. No 2.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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