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What is Jerk Chicken?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Jerk chicken is a Caribbean dish featuring chicken marinated in the famous jerk sauce of Jamaica. The “jerk,” incidentally, is derived from “jerky,” a type of preserved meat, rather than a reference to a “jerk” as in an obnoxious person. Various versions of this dish can be found throughout the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica, and it is also popular in regions with a large Caribbean diaspora. Some home cooks also enjoy making it at home.

The jerk sauce is actually traditionally a dry rub that is famous for being extremely spicy. At a minimum, the spicing includes scotch bonnet peppers, among the hottest in the world, and allspice. Most cooks also include shallots, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, nutmeg, pepper, and a variety of other ingredients to taste. A good jerk sauce has a strong spicy kick with a hint of sweetness to it, and many households develop their own specific version.

To make traditional jerk chicken, cooks rub the chicken in the spices and allow it to marinate overnight so that the flavors penetrate the meat. Then, the chicken is prepared on an open grill, and served with sides like rice, salad, and mixed vegetables. The chicken is dry, fiery, and slightly smoky.

Some people use a wet marinade to make this dish, instead of the traditional dry rub. Wet marinades include ingredients like molasses, soy sauce, lime juice, vinegar, and oil. When prepared with a wet marinade, jerk chicken is much moister, and it tends to be sweeter as well. The choice of marinade is largely a matter of taste and regional tradition.

In addition to being used on chicken, jerk sauce can also be used as a marinade for beef, pork, and a wide variety of meats, in addition to meat replacements like tofu and tempeh. Historically, the meat would have been cut into small, even pieces and allowed to slowly dry out after being marinated in the spice, generating a preserved meat that would last essentially indefinitely. The jerk spice helped preserve the meat during the curing process, and also added flavor to the finished product.

For people who want to make jerk chicken at home without mixing the spice blend, many stores carry pre-mixed spices or marinades. A grill is also not required, although it is recommended for the best flavor. If a grill is not available, the chicken can be broiled or baked, although adding liquid smoke to the marinade may be a good idea, as it will hint at the flavor of traditionally-prepared dish.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon302426 — On Nov 09, 2012

Authentic jerk marinade recipe

Ingredients: 1/2 liter (2 cups) of “Soya” sauce - or regular; 1 handful of pimento grains - or about four tablespoons of freshly ground allspice; one bunch of scallions or green onions. (If you have a sensitive stomach, you can use leeks instead); one head of garlic; 12 scotch bonnet or Habanero peppers (deseeded); two ounces of vinegar - cane if you can find it, but white vinegar works well also; one bunch of fresh thyme; four tablespoons each: easy spice meat seasoning and easy spice chicken seasoning or: 1 tablespoon of paprika; 1 tablespoon freshly ground nutmeg; 1 tablespoon freshly ground cinnamon; 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper; 1 tablespoon white pepper; 2 tablespoons of brown sugar; 2 oz dark rum (optional).

Cook over pimento wood.

By anon302424 — On Nov 09, 2012

Jerk originates from the Carib and Arawak Indians who, in order to preserve their meat, slow-cooked it with citrus and spice. Jamaicans credit the Maroons, who used hot peppers to season the meat, then slowly cooked it over smoke. They stuffed the meat with peppers and herbs, wrapped it in leaves, and placed it in a pit with slow-burning pimento wood.

The word "jerk" is used in seasoning and in cooking.

In jerk seasoning you can choose either a dry jerk rub or a wet jerk marinade. Each has a distinct flavor, so you'll want to try both.

In jerk cooking, you must use pimento wood sticks, chips, leaves and berries for an authentic Jamaican jerk taste.

In the United States, people have grown accustomed to adding flavored wood chips to their barbecue to add a smoky flavor. For real jerk chicken, you must use pimento wood.

By tigers88 — On Oct 27, 2012

Does anyone have a recipe for a homemade jerk chicken seasoning?

I have just recently gotten into making my own spice blends. I did a curry, and an Italian blend. I want to do chili powder and with summer coming up I would also like to do a jerk blend because that is one of my favorites on BBQ chicken.

By truman12 — On Oct 26, 2012

Has anyone actually had jerk chicken in Jamaica? Does it taste any different? Sometimes I suspect that is is an American invention, like the chimichanga.

By clippers — On Oct 26, 2012

There is this awesome, funky little pizza place that my husband and I go to all the time that offers a jerk chicken pizza. It is a white sauce pizza with jerk chicken, red onions, and fresh tomatoes. It is our favorite and we probably eat at least one a month.

By Fiorite — On Oct 16, 2010

I have a small food dehydrator, and I like to make jerky. One of my favorite jerky's is a bison jerky rubbed with jerk chicken sauce. There's just something about the allspice that makes the jerky taste so god.

By ValleyFiah — On Jun 28, 2010

I was born in Montego Bay and I spent my early childhood years in Negril and Lucea. I want to add that you cannot forget the nutmeg and garlic in your jerk rub.

That being said, there is nothing better than some fiah hot jerk chicken or goat leg served with some rice and peas and salad. A couple of limes to squeeze on the jerk are also a necessity. You must also cook the rice and peas with coconut milk and fresh thyme sprigs.

Jerk is almost as Jamaican as ackee and salt cod.

This article was great, although I personally dispute the authenticity of jerk made with soy sauce. I think I will have to get some scotch bonnets and fire up the grill. Thanks wiseGEEK for bringing back memories!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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