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Jamaica: Just Jerk

The Caribbean Islands abound with spices, curries, and flavorings from around the world. When we hear the word spice, Jerk comes to mind.

Jerk is truly embedded in Jamaican tradition. The jerk process may have begun with slaves, called Maroons) who escaped Africa and hid in the mountains of Jamaica. There, it is reported, they dug pits in the ground. They coated wild boar with spices, which acted as a preservative while the meat cooked slowly.

Today, pork, chicken, and fish are the most popular candidates for jerk seasonings. While you may not have a fire pit in the back yard, jerked meats taste good on a smoker or in the oven. The key is slow cooking and the right spice mix or marinade.

The jerk spice list varies from as few as 6 main ingredients to as many as 35, depending on who is sharing a recipe. Some have sugars and salts, while others do not.

Jerk rubs are dry or "wet," which involves liquid additions to the base recipes.

Depending on where you plan to cook the meat - in the oven or outdoors - determines if you are making a wet paste or a wet marinade. Use a paste for oven cooking and use a marinade for outdoors. In either case, cover the meat with a marinade overnight for the best and fullest flavors. Use a dry rub outdoors and for sprinkling on meats during cooking. Add dry jerk mixes to rice and bean dishes for added flavor as well.

Expect jerked foods to be hot. When you make your own at home, adjust the pepper amounts accordingly - and do not be afraid to experiment without any heat if you just do not like hot foods. The combination of spices will add plenty of tasty flavor to your food. (Bear in mind, however, that to become a real "jerkhead," the first few bites should range anywhere from take-your-head-off heat to a nice burn that builds up on the tongue and down the throat.)

A jerk recipe will always call for Scotch Bonnet peppers. These are the Caribbean "sister" to the habanero and are among the hottest peppers on Earth. Use them with caution. Substitutions can be in the form of jalapenos to retain the flavor you are looking for in jerk recipes.

Base Jerk Mix:

3 teaspoons ground allspice
3 teaspoons ground thyme
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons onion powder
2 teaspoons cloves, ground
1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon habanero, dried and ground

Mix together. Makes about 1/3 cup.

To make a paste or marinade, use the above recipe and add the following, then puree in blender or processor.

¼ cup yellow mustard
4 Tablespoons orange juice

OR, for a denser version

2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons lime juice
3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ onion, minced

You may also wish to add:

2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
4 Tablespoons dark rum

Adjust the above ingredients or mix and match to create your own blend of pastes and marinades.

Do the jerk at your house and enjoy the unique flavors of Jamaica. Yah, mon!

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