What is Jamaican Jerk?

People ask me all the time: what is Jamaican jerk?

Well Jamaican jerk is a style of cooking and also a type of wet or dry seasoning. The resulting food yields a spicy sweet flavor and a tender texture. Be forewarned, if you cannot handle spicy hot foods, jerk may not be for you! To cook Jamaican jerk style means using a hot spice mixture or seasoning, that is either a dry rub or a wet rub or marinade. Normally this is used for chicken or pork but can also be used on shrimp, fish, beef, venison or lamb.

First let’s talk about the cooking technique of jerking. This type of cooking was first created by the Arawak Indians, the original natives of Jamaica. This method of cooking has evolved over time from using pit fires until around the 1960’s, when Caribbean entrepreneurs trying to recreate the smoked pit flavor discovered an easier, more portable method by cutting oil barrels or steel drums lengthwise, attaching hinges and drilling ventilation holes for the smoke to escape. They used hardwood charcoal or gas and added pimento tree limbs or leaves for jerk flavor. The home cook can use either gas or charcoal grills. Street side jerk stands are frequently found in Jamaica as well as throughout the Caribbean region. Jerk cooking and seasoning has followed the migration of Caribbean descendents all over the world and jerk food can now be found in restaurants in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and other countries.

There are a lot of different recipes for jerk seasoning and the components can be numerous. But we Jamaican jerk lovers agree that there are three main ingredients that are most often present. They are allspice, Scotch Bonnet peppers and thyme.

The allspice berries, also known as Jamaica or Myrtle pepper, is a necessity in jerk seasoning. This is not the ground powder used in pies, but the berry of the evergreen pimento tree, which is native to the West Indies and South America. Most of the world’s supply comes from Jamaica. The dark brown dried berries look similar to peppercorns and can be purchased whole or ground. They have a spicy rich flavor reminiscent of a combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Use a mortar and pestle to grind your own or you can also use a coffee or pepper grinder.

Next is the Scotch Bonnet Pepper which is small, wrinkly and extremely hot. They range in color from green to yellow to red, depending on the ripeness of the pepper. This a variety of the habanero pepper. The purpose of Scotch Bonnets in Jamaican jerk seasoning is not only to spice it up but was also used to preserve foods when refrigeration was not available and also to aid in digestion. If Scotch Bonnet peppers are not available in your local grocery store or ethnic market you can substitute with habanero chilies. You can use a milder pepper, like jalapeno, but I suggest for authentic flavor using the hotter peppers. You can reduce the amount of heat by removing the seeds and as much as the membrane as possible. Do not handle hot peppers without wearing plastic or latex gloves, avoid inhaling the fumes, and thoroughly wash your hands after handling the peppers. The oil can be very irritable. Deletion of the hot peppers vastly changes the jerk recipe and it’s just not jerk without the heat!

The third essential ingredient is thyme. It is widely used in Caribbean cooking and adds complexity to the flavor of jerk. Recipes may call for thyme leaves or ground thyme, both of which are available in grocery stores. Thyme is also a digestive aid and has other beneficial heath properties.

Other ingredients that are often used in jerk sauce/rub recipes include soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, rum, water, garlic, brown sugar, black pepper or bay leaves.

In conclusion I want to state that jerk food, particularly chicken or pork is something I enjoy very much and prepare as often as possible. Feel free to use these tips and develop your own jerk sauce or rub. Or you can save time and still get that authentic Jamaican jerk flavor by purchasing any of the prepared rubs and sauces we offer below.