Our Global Gourmet recipe series is designed to bring the foods we loved while traveling into our own kitchens. We’ve included wine, beer or spirit pairings, as well.
I recently traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, on a mission to learn what Jamaican cuisine is all about. I hadn’t really tried many Jamaican dishes before the trip, but I’ve heard so much about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken. Haven’t we all?! I wanted to know what makes Jamaican jerk sauce and marinade so tasty. And, of course, I wanted to taste it myself, to finally see what everyone is talking about.
During the trip, we ate at local restaurants as much as possible to get a wide range of dishes. One of the things I learned was that jerk seasoning is not reserved just for chicken. It’s used on pork, fish, seafood, and even vegetables. It’s a very universal seasoning.
I have to confess, even as a foodie, before my trip to Montego Bay, I’d never tried Jamaican jerk chicken. It’s not that I didn’t want to try it, but that I never had the opportunity to taste authentic and real Jamaican jerk, the way it’s meant to be. Now that I’ve tried the real thing, I’m more convinced than ever that the versions we get at home are not quite right.
Let’s be honest, the magic of Jamaican jerk chicken isn’t the chicken – it’s the marinade and the sauce. If you don’t get those two elements right, you just have regular old chicken. Believe me, Jamaican jerk chicken, done right, is anything but regular old chicken.
⇒ Want to go to Jamaica? Check out our Jamaica travel guide and get planning!
The seasonings that make Jamaican jerk chicken so perfectly unique are never present in American attempts at Jamaican jerk marinade. There are a few key components like cloves, allspice, thyme, and garlic that are absolutely necessary to get the right flavor combination. And the major ingredient that you cannot make Jamaican jerk sauce without is scotch bonnet peppers. How many Americans know how to handle scotch bonnets properly? I’d say not many.
When we arrived in Montego Bay, one of the first things we did was head over to the jerk chicken empire of Scotchies. It’s a roadside charcoal barbecue joint that makes and sells hundreds of Jamaican jerk chickens every day. In fact, they sell anywhere from 170-350 chickens that have been slow- cooked over an outdoor charcoal oven every single day. If anyone knows how to make authentic Jamaican jerk marinade and sauce the right way, it’s them.
I mean, just look at that chicken!
History of Jerk Chicken in Jamaica
Jerk seasoning is used throughout the Caribbean today, but the origin of it dates back to the end of the 17th century when African slaves fled into the woods to escape their British captors. Adapting to their new challenges, they used what was available to them for preserving meat they caught, which led them to create the spicy sauce now known as jerk seasoning. The term “jerk” is thought to have come from the Spanish word for dried meat, which translated as jerky in English. It also refers to the process of cooking that required you to jerk around the chicken on the grill.
How to Make Jerk Marinade and Sauce
Making this tasty dish starts with a super spicy marinade that is slathered on the chicken and left on for at least a few hours, but preferably overnight. The marinade is a wet mix of spices, seasonings, and scotch bonnet chilis.
(Shh… don’t tell on me, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can actually purchase Jamaican jerk marinade on Amazon, and it’s the exact same brand that the Jamaicans buy and use at home. I have it on good authority from a Jamaican that this is the closest sauce you can get to making it yourself. If you don’t want to make your own marinade, you should purchase this sauce.) Now back to cooking!
This isn’t a marinade for those who don’t like heat. It’s super spicy. That’s what makes it truly Jamaican. Yes, you can leave the chilis out, but it won’t be authentic. Look at those delicious chilis!
If you can’t get your hands on any scotch bonnets, you can substitute with habanero or jalepeno. Habanero chilis are actually very similar to scotch bonnets in heat, though scotch bonnets are a bit sweeter. They are screaming hot, of course, but you can tone down the spiciness by removing the veins and seeds.
Other ingredients include all spice (called pimento in Jamaica), garlic, thyme, onion, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, ginger, olive oil, and rum (optional). Put all these ingredients into a blender and mix it all up into a nicely ground paste. I’ve seen versions that aren’t as ground up as mine is, but I prefer a finer grind because it spreads easier and doesn’t burn.
Spread the paste all over the chicken and leave it to marinate in the refrigerator for as long as you can, up to 24 hours. This is what allows the flavor to really set in.
About the chicken: the way it’s done in Jamaica is to spatchcock it, which is to remove the backbone, and the breast bone, if you like, which allows the chicken to lay flat. If you don’t know how to spatchcock, here are some easy instructions.
One the chicken has been covered with the marinade, leave it in the fridge to soak up the good flavors for a couple of hours, but preferably overnight. To truly develop flavors, it needs time.
The next step is to make the scotch bonnet dipping sauce. In Jamaica, the extremely spicy sauce is typically served in a bottle alongside the chicken, so you can put on as much or as little as you like. It should be pure, unadulterated scotch bonnet jerk sauce. Then you can decide to mix it with ketchup if you need to tone it down a bit. I’m always skeptical of any sauce that comes with the ketchup mixed in.
Use the food processor to blend up all of your sauce ingredients to serve alongside your chicken once it’s cooked. Again, I like mine to be a bit more incorporated, but you can blend it to your own liking.
To cook the chicken, if you want it to be as authentic tasting as possible, you’d have to slow cook it over a charcoal fire pit on pimento wood. But who has set up available at home? Unfortunately, in London we barely have an oven, much less an outdoor barbecue. You have to cook with what’s available.
We have a fan oven that evenly cooks the chicken, while crisping up the skin nicely. It will never add that smoky charcoal and wood flavor, but I’ve learned to live with that. You can cook your chicken over a charcoal barbecue, a gas grill, or even in the oven, if you have to.
I think it comes out very nice from the oven. As you can see, the skin is crispy and covered nicely by the jerk marinade.
After allowing it to rest for 10 minutes to hold in all the juices, you can cut the chicken into smaller pieces and move it to a serving plate with the sauce on the side.
You can serve it with your favorite side dish. In Jamaica, that would be rice and peas (beans) and sauteed greens. If you’re not the sauteed greens type, we like to pair it with ears of sweet corn.
According to our tour guide, Willy, of Paradise Travels in Jamaica, you can’t have jerk chicken without the national beer, Red Stripe. He told me that Jamaicans think it’s the perfect drink to pair with jerk chicken, to take away some of the heat of the sauce. In Jamaica, you can get two flavored versions of Red Stripe – lemon and sorrel. I’m not sure if they are exported, but that’s just one more reason you need to start planning a vacation to Jamaica right now!
Jamaican jerk chicken recipe
- 1 whole chicken, around 3.5 lbs, spatchcocked
- 2 tbsp ground thyme
- 3 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp ground sage
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 tsp grated ginger
- 3 tbsp chopped onion
- 1 tbsp packed brown sugar
- 2 Scotch Bonnet chilis (can use habanero as substitute)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 2 Scotch Bonnet peppers, chopped
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped pineapple, or 1/8 cup pineapple juice
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/8 cup white vinegar
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Juice from 1 lime
- 1/2 tsp remaining jerk marinade
- Spatchcock the chicken and set aside.
- Mix all ingredients for jerk marinade in a food processor and mix until a paste forms. Reserve 1/2 tsp jerk marinade for the sauce. Rub the remaining marinade all over the chicken. Cover chicken and refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
- Place all ingredients for scotch bonnet sauce in a food processor and mix until your desired chunkiness. Transfer the sauce to a saucepan and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and allow to cool in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve the chicken.
- Preheat either the grill or the oven. Grill should be set to medium-low heat. Oven should be set to 400 degrees F (200 C). Remove chicken from refrigerator and place it on a pre-heated grill or oven roasting rack. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 10 minutes before carving. Chop the chicken up into smaller pieces. Serve it with the scotch bonnet sauce.
(Our trip to Jamaica was hosted by Visit Jamaica in conjunction with Blogilicious. We want to thank the businesses and attractions we visited for their fantastic hospitality. As always, all opinions and views expressed in this guide are our own.)
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Laura Lynch is the creator and writer of Savored Journeys, an avid world traveler and lover of great food and wine. She has been a travel writer for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.