Is There A Difference Between Old Bay And J.O. Seasoning?

In the state of Maryland, Old Bay seasoning isn't just an ingredient; it's a symbol of statewide pride. Marylanders use it with local blue crabs, steamed shrimp, fried chicken breading, sweet corn, French fries, and more. The squared-off canister is ubiquitous, found in grocery stores, on t-shirts, and, of course, in kitchens and dining rooms all over the Old Line State. Maryland residents used to mail canisters of the spice to friends and family who'd moved away from the mid-Atlantic, but when McCormick & Co. bought Old Bay in 1990, distribution became much wider.

Old Bay isn't the only seafood spice in Maryland, though. Based just outside Baltimore, in Halethorpe, Maryland, family-owned and -operated J.O. Spice Company has been manufacturing its own blend of seafood seasoning for about as long as Old Bay has been part of Maryland seafood. Old Bay certainly has the edge in consumer visibility, but are there other significant differences between these two Baltimore-based spice blends?

Old Bay and J.O. each have unique strengths

Both Old Bay and J.O. Spice Company date back almost a century, and both were founded in Maryland. Both seafood spice blends use celery salt, red and black pepper, and paprika, though some of the other spices they contain remain a closely guarded secret. But that's where the similarities end. In 2019, The Baltimore Sun called 30 local crab houses to find out what crab seasoning they used when they steam their crabs. 18 of those businesses use either J.O. No. 2 "Crab House Spice" or a custom blend of seasonings created by J.O. Only one crab house reported using Old Bay as part of their custom spice blend.

J.O. describes their "Crab House Spice" as a custom blend that uses special salt to adhere to the shells of crabs when they're steamed. Chef Lupe Bueno of Baltimore landmark Nick's Fish House told the Sun his restaurant uses one of J.O.'s custom spice blends specifically because of the large salt flakes. Some crab house purveyors explained that Old Bay is too fine and simply melts off during the crab steaming process. Pete Hellmann of Pete's Crab House pointed out, however, that Old Bay is perfect for "crab cakes and for steaming shrimp, not for crabs." 

There's room for both seasonings on your table. If you're steaming crabs, popular consensus is that J.O. No. 2 "Crab House Spice" is best. If you're sprinkling a seasoning on Maryland Silver Queen corn, or if you're doing a seafood boil, Old Bay can be ideal.