Jamaican Jerk

Barbeque fragrant, spicy Jamaican jerk, and bring home the flavors of the Caribbean.

Island Flavors
There are any number of recipes for jerk seasoning, and many have an ingredient list a mile long. Jamaican food lovers agree that there are three jerk spice ingredients that are key:
allspice, Scotch bonnet peppers, and thyme.

  • The allspice berry, also known as “Jamaica pepper,” is native to the island and has a rich, spicy flavor reminiscent of a mingling of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  • Scotch bonnet peppers are small, orange, wrinkly, and extremely hot–they are among the hottest chiles available.
  • Thyme is widely used in Caribbean cooking and adds complexity to the flavor of the meat. Additional ingredients that are often added to jerk seasoning include garlic, brown sugar, green onions, soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, rum, bay leaves, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper.
Dad's Kickin' Jamaica Wings, Mon

Pam Ziegler Lutz

Do the Grind
For the most flavorful seasoning, buy spices whole, toast them lightly in a dry skillet–just until they become aromatic–and then grind them in a spice grinder (a coffee grinder reserved for this purpose) or a mortar and pestle.

  • Remove the seeds from the peppers; to decrease the heat, also remove the white membranes. Do not handle Scotch bonnet peppers without wearing plastic or latex gloves: the oils can cause serious irritation and burning to your hands.
  • If you’re apprehensive about eating something that hot, you can substitute a milder pepper–your jerked meats will still taste great!
  • Place the peppers, the ground spices, and all the remaining ingredients in a food processor and let it run until a smooth paste forms. You can add soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, rum, or water if the mixture appears to need more liquid.

Rub it In
Pork and chicken are the two most traditional meats to jerk, but the seasoning is wonderful on beef, lamb, and fish as well. If you want to do an all-day, slow-cooked barbeque, choose pork butt or whole chickens; for quick grilling, opt for boneless chicken, fish, or pork loin.

  • Start by making shallow scores in the surface of the meat using a sharp knife, and then rub the seasoning paste thoroughly over the surface of the meat.
  • If you’re using skin-on chicken, omit the scoring step and rub the seasoning under the skin.
  • Once again, it’s a good idea to wear plastic or latex gloves while handling the seasoning.
  • Wrap the meat tightly in plastic and refrigerate overnight to allow the spices to permeate it.
Jay's Jerk Chicken

Photo by chibi chef

Heat Meets Meat
True Jamaican jerk must be barbequed. The traditional way is to slow-roast the meat at a low temperature for several hours over a fire fueled by allspice branches, which give a sweet and spicy smoke flavor to the meat. You may be hard-put to find allspice branches in your area, but you can use any kind of hardwood chips to add to the flavor of your jerk barbeque.

  • Prepare your grill for indirect heat, and place a drip pan underneath the spot where you’ll grill the meat.
  • Soak food-friendly wood chips in a bowl of water for 30 minutes or so, and then sprinkle them liberally over the hot coals just before putting the meat on the grill.

Ease the Burn

Traditional accompaniments to jerked meats include black beans and rice, mango salsa, roasted sweet potatoes, fried plantains, and grilled pineapple. These dishes are high in starch and acidic ingredients, both of which will help to temper the spicy burn.

Fried Plantains

Photo by highfivehilary

The History of Jerk Seasoning
The word jerk refers to the seasoning blend, the cooking method, and to the meat that has been treated to the jerk seasoning and cooking processes.

Jerk was first created by the Arawak Indians, the original natives of Jamaica. The liberal amounts of spices and peppers helped preserve meats in the island heat, as did drying them over an open fire. The term “jerk” is thought to derive from the Spanish term charqui, which means dried meat. The word can also refer to the jerking motion of turning the meat as it roasts over the fire.

Drinks and Desserts
Cool down with fruity, cool rum drinks and desserts.

Grilled Pineapple Slices

Photo by Emily

Related Links
In a time crunch? Try these Jamaican-inspired recipes.