Old Bay seasoning and Cajun seasoning are two regionally iconic American spice blends. Old Bay comes from Maryland, Cajun seasoning is associated with parts of Louisiana. The two differ strongly in their intended effects on food although both are flavorful and have several ingredients in common. We will look at the differences and how these two spice mixes compare in this PepperScale Showdown.
Old Bay vs Cajun seasoning – how do they differ?
One major difference has to do with each blend’s make-up. Old Bay seasoning is a product of McCormick & Company, a U.S. spice company and has a recipe with a precise ingredient list that ensures a consistent product. Cajun seasoning is different since there is no one recipe for it. It is one of those spice blends that each cook makes according to their preference; however, most Cajun seasoning blends include the same set of dried and powdered spices.
Old Bay Seasoning offers a complex flavor profile due to its long list of ingredients — it has 18 ingredients including bay leaf, mace, cloves, and more. Most Cajun seasoning blends have far fewer spices. Cajun seasoning usually contains fewer than 10 component spices.
Old Bay’s flavor profile is relatively mild with small quantities of each ingredient (and the hottest being paprika); Cajun seasoning blends are usually spicier with larger quantities of red pepper.
Both spice blends have very different origin stories. A German immigrant spice merchant in Maryland named Gustav Brunn invented Old Bay. Brunn wanted to sell a spice blend for crabs to his customers. Brunn named his spice mix after a ship that sailed from the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk, VA in the early 20th century.
The precise origin of Cajun seasoning is unknown and the blend has been more commonly associated with a community than with a specific individual. The Cajun community is from Canada where they were known as the Acadians. The British expelled the Acadians from Canada and some of them were sent to Louisiana where the word Acadian gradually got transformed into the word Cajun.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
While the two blends differ a lot in composition, their flavor profiles are not so different that you can’t use them as substitutes for each other. Old Bay seasoning makes a decent stand-in for Cajun seasoning. You can use it to get a less-spicy but more complex flavor, or you can add a little cayenne to it if you need a little more heat.
While it won’t provide the same complex range of flavors, Cajun seasoning can stand in for Old Bay seasoning in any of Old Bay’s more traditional applications such as in seafood boils and in the breading for fried fish.
Note that Cajun seasoning only works as an Old Bay substitute if you are okay with the extra heat. Remember that while you can always add extra heat to a mild blend like Old Bay, you can’t remove it from a hotter one like Cajun seasoning so proceed with caution.
When should you use Old Bay and when should you use Cajun seasoning?
The traditional way to use Old Bay seasoning is on shellfish, and mainly on crabs; however, it is much more versatile than that. Its flavor profile lends itself to a vast range of savory dishes including fried chicken and Bloody Mary cocktails.
Similarly, Cajun seasoning has a similarly numerous list of applications but is usually used in classic Louisiana dishes like gumbo and etouffee.