Monday 2 June 2014

Jerk Chicken (2 Methods)

It is with much excitement that I present this post since it is for one of my all-time favourite dishes. Jerk is a seasoning and cooking method native to Jamaica but has taken on worldwide popularity, particularly in all of the West Indies, the UK, Brooklyn, Toronto and Montréal. While just about any animal protein can be (and is) jerked, it is more commonly preferred with chicken or pork. Jerk is thought to be a recipe that evolved when the British caused the Spanish to flee Jamaica in a battle in 1655, leaving behind a community of slaves of West African heritage. Rather than be re-enslaved by the British they fled into the mountainous regions of the island where they mixed in with Jamaica's indigenous Taínos people, both in culture and cuisine. 

Traditionally, jerk is a dry spice rub consisting always of allspice berries (or "pimento" as Jamaica calls it) and hot chili pepper, usually scotch bonnet. Although there is a wet marinade version which seems to be just as popular. Both are tremendous and for a while I struggled over the decision of which one to make for the blog. The dry rub is more traditional, the flavour tends to be sharper and the texture is crispier. The wet marinade has a more complex flavour, makes juicier chicken and the flavours of the marinade penetrate more through the meat than the dry version. Finally I just decided to do them both. Jerk is meant to be spicy, so if you have a taste for spice this is a recipe I bet you will love.

Jerk chicken is traditionally grilled over smoking coals but you could use these recipes for a baked version. I only have a gas grill (which rightfully belongs to my roommate) but if you have a charcoal grill then you are in jerk chicken making heaven. While I'm on the topic of barbecues, the one that I have access to has seen better days. The heat plate needs to be replaced. As a result, the heat is less controllable, uneven and causes flares which scorch the meat. This experience has helped me to realize the urgency in which a replacement has to happen, lol. So my jerk chicken turned out a little scorched. Honestly, still awesome though. Bone-in chicken takes best to grilling at a direct medium-high heat. Breast meat takes less time to cook than dark meat, and the wings take even less time. You should flip each piece only once and cook with the lid down as often as possible, until an internal temperature of 165 F/74 C is reached in the thickest area of each part. Jerk chicken works best with chicken drums and thighs, I just had two whole chickens to use. 

Let's start with the dry rub recipe. I got my hands on some cayenne pepper and ground habanero pepper which worked incredibly in this recipe. You could use the same amount of just cayenne or whatever chili powder you prefer. I used palm sugar but you can substitute with brown or raw sugar.

Ingredients for dry rub

3 tsp ground allspice
3 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp of palm sugar
1 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground garlic
1 tsp ground onion
1 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground habanero pepper
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg


If you have all of the above ingredients then all you need to do is combine, mix and store in an airtight container. But if you really want to get the most out of your spices, then you would grate your own fresh nutmeg (huge difference) and toast any whole spices (except salt) before grinding them yourself. 

I used grated fresh nutmeg (which is the nut looking thing in the center of the plate to the right in the picture above) and I had whole allspice berries, cloves and peppercorns. Whenever you toast any spices, warm a dry pan over medium heat and add the whole spices to it. Roll the pan around over the heat so that the spices are constantly moving. After 25-30 seconds remove the warm pan from the heat and pour out the spices immediately. The heat warms the essential oils in the spices, dramatically improving their flavour. It's a simple extra step that's so worth it. 


Pour your freshly toasted spices into a coffee grinder/spice mill or better yet, grind by hand with a mortar and pestle. If using a mortar and pestle, add the kosher salt to assist with abrasiveness.


Once you've obtained a finely ground texture....


Combine well with the remaining spices.

Store in an airtight container and use up ideally within a month. Whenever you jerk anything that isn't fish or seafood, always let it marinate in the spices overnight. That's just the rules, lol.

Ingredients for Wet Marinade

2-3 Scotch Bonnet peppers (or to taste), seeded
5 scallions, roughly chopped
1 small onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
Juice of 1 orange
Juice of 1 lime
2 tbsp vegetable oil (or canola)
1 tbsp runny honey
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

Just a quick note about scotch bonnets, if you're not familiar with them I suggest you use disposal latex or rubber gloves while handling and wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Scotch bonnets are fiery hot (about 40-50 times the heat of a jalepeño pepper). If you handle them with your bare hands the capsciacin will linger and be very painful if you touch your eye or any sensitive area of your body. 

First, since I have whole spices I am going to toast my allspice berries, cloves and peppercorns in a dry pan, medium heat, 25-30 seconds while moving them constantly. 


Then I ground them in a mortar and pestle along with the kosher salt.

Set the spices aside for now. To make the marinade you'll need a blender or food processor. The order in which the ingredients go in probably isn't that important but this is what I did...

I roughly chopped the scallions, onion and crushed the garlic. The thyme I was able to get from my own herb garden and gave that a rough chop. I have a variety called "creeping thyme" that has softer stems and tends to grow more horizontally that vertically. Most thyme you finds at the supermarket can have woody stems. If your thyme is woody like that just prune the leaves and use those while discarding the stems. I seeded and chopped the scotch bonnet peppers, finely grated a piece of ginger until I had a tsp and I squeezed the juice out of one orange and one lime. Rolling a citrus fruit a few times with your palm against a hard surface will maximize the amount of juice you get from it. 

Then I combined all of that into a blender.


Pulse in short bursts at first before puréeing everything into a thin sauce.


Then add the soy sauce, vinegar, honey, oil and all the spices (ie, all the remaining ingredients) and blitz into the sauce.

Any unused jerk marinade can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 weeks or frozen for several months. Same with the dry rub, whatever you jerk that didn't come from the sea, marinate overnight. 

When jerking chicken, it's always a good idea to use bone-in, skin on chicken parts. Make 1 of 2 shallow cuts in the skin and meat to allow the flavours to really permeate the chicken.


Place your chicken pieces in a sealable, plastic bag with enough of the dry rub or marinade to thoroughly coat. Massage/shake the bag so that everything is evenly coated. Then leave in the fridge overnight to marinate.

The next day, this is what the marinated chickens looked like. Spice rub is in the lower left and marinade is in the top right.

Then it's just a matter of heating up your barbecue and grilling your chicken. So again, direct medium-high heat works best for grilling bone-in chicken parts. Damp the grill with paper towel dipped in vegetable oil with a pair of tongs to prevent sticking. Your chicken pieces may stick a little at first but that's just because it is building up a sear. If it sticks let it cook for a minute or two more and the sear should release from the grate. Overall you're looking at about five or six minutes per side but the real goal is reaching that internal temperature of 165 F/74 C. 


It's a shame that my jerk chicken didn't turn out perfect. I am really looking forward to replacing that heat plate. There's no way I will last this summer if I can't barbecue properly. lol

Taken with my phone

When your chicken is cooked through, remove it from the grill and allow to rest for five to ten minutes before serving. Enjoy your jerk chicken however you like but some classic side dishes are rice-n-peas, greens, roti, fried plantains and/or coleslaw. 

In the photo below is a drumstick from the dry rub and a thigh from the marinade batch with roasted plantain mashed with olive oil and lime juice, coconutty coleslaw and lime zest.


Jerk chicken has a unique, spicy, smokey, savoury flavour that is so satisfying. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. You should definitely give this a try. If you don't have a barbecue you could bake jerk chicken. It won't have that same smokey flavour but it will still be delicious. Otherwise, maybe you could convince a friend of yours who does have a barbecue to host a bbq potluck. Won't you be the star of the party if you show up with your very own jerk chicken from scratch ready to toss on the grill. It's no secret how much I love island food and a proper jerk chicken tutorial was past due.

I hope you guys enjoyed it and that it has inspired you to do some jerk chicken, pork or whatever yourselves! Don't let summer 2014 pass you by without this culinary experience. You'll be glad you tried it.


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