A lot of people would categorize jerk as a spice blend, or a vague family of flavors that are prevalent in Jamaican cooking. While this is technically true, it’s doing a huge disservice to the culinary institution that is jerk.
It’s not a seasoning blend you can buy in bulk at the local Costco. More accurately, jerk is a cooking and seasoning process by which meats, fish, and vegetables are cooked. Think about the term ‘barbecue’. Jerk is a similarly genre-defining, broad term. Jerk seasoning is the stuff you buy in the packet. So, what’s the big deal? What is jerk? And how can we bring it into our backyards?
Well, let’s start at the beginning.
There are a lot of theories as to where jerk began. But, many historians believe that jerk cooking techniques were invented by Maroons -- African slaves who were transported to the Caribbean, and escaped into the wilderness of Jamaica. They were forced to use natural resources to adapt to these new surroundings, which led to them pioneering an entire genre of culinary work.
These DIY methods they developed mixed with those of the indigenous people, creating what we now know as jerk.
Jerk is known for its smoky, spicy flavors. These are generally achieved by slow-roasting meats over wood, and using dry or wet spice rubs to create further flavor. Although there’s a huge variety of spices that can be included, there are two must-haves: allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers.
When using allspice (in fact, originally known as the Jamaican Pimento), make sure to buy whole berries and grind them yourself! It’s going to be much bigger on flavor than the pre-ground stuff. As for the Scotch bonnets, they’ll impart a fruity sort of spice, although they can be admittedly difficult to find. If you can’t find Scotch bonnets, Habaneros make for a decent substitute.
Our advice? Puree allspice berries, scotch bonnets (careful here, they pack a punch), brown sugar, honey, and some shallots for a fantastic spice rub. This can be applied to just about anything you can think of, and stands up really well to a smoky flavor profile.
Well, this section won’t take long -- you can jerk anything! Whether that’s chicken, whole pork loins, or even vegetables. Typically, chicken leg quarters are a great candidate for the technique, but feel free to experiment!
Traditionally, jerk is cooked on absolutely massive grills. Huge pimento wood branches are laid out over hot coals, and the meat is placed directly on the branches. A large metal sheet is then placed over the protein, and the meat is smoked for hours at a time. In all honesty -- it’s not too far from barbecue! But, because the traditional method is probably hard to achieve for most of us home cooks, we’d look towards a (mostly) standard smoking setup. You can use whatever type of wood you like, but we’ve had good results from adding whole allspice berries on top of the smoking wood.
There you have it! Try mixing it up at your next BBQ and you’ll be able to offer your guests a whole new world of flavors!
As always, Happy Grilling!