This big—hitter from Jamaica is powered by jerk seasoning — a vibrant blend of high—heat chilies, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, garlic, onions, and limes. Sweetened by caramell-y brown sugar, and darkened with salty soy, it pairs perfectly with delicately tender chicken. Jamaican jerk chicken is one of those meals you won’t soon forget.
The flavor of Jamaican jerk chicken begins and ends with the seasoning. Our jerk seasoning certainly has the hot spark of potently fiery chilies, but its brightest star is definitely allspice. Quite rightly tagged as Caribbean cooking’s signature flavor, this little reddish-brown berry packs a surprising flavor punch.
We’re talking a seriously mellow mix of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Then add the clean, almost astringent bite of black pepper. Now think fresh — vibrantly fresh — and you’re almost there in sensing this berry’s unique delights. And I mean unique — nothing else tastes the same as allspice.
Put all those elements together in one package, and you’ve got a big clue to why it’s called allspice. It’s also known as Jamaica pepper — the island is by far the world’s biggest producer — and it sometimes gets called pimenta and pimenton, from the Spanish word, pimienta, meaning peppercorn or pepper.
Very spicy. Very hot. That’s what jerk seasoning is all about.
Allspice might take centre stage here, but the chilies are hardly cowering in the wings. Oh, no. Scotch bonnets are the traditional, real-deal chilies in Jamaican jerk chicken (or any type of jerk dishes), but similarly fiery habaneros do make a fine substitute. Here’s why. These are both seriously hot chilies, and, first and foremost, high heat is what you want from them in this seasoning.
Differences in fruity sweetness — bonnets are fruitier — don’t matter so much when the chilies are performing alongside jerk’s other strongly flavored players.
Now, if scotch bonnets and habaneros are pushing things too far for your taste, you scale things back a bit and go a little less spicy by using, say, Thai bird’s eye chilies. They’re hardly mild, but it’s important to remember that jerk seasoning just isn’t supposed to be mildly flavored. That part — the gently subtle flavors — is taken by the delicately tender chicken. And it’s the really marked contrast between the chicken and the jerk that makes this such a hugely appealing dish.
Choosing your chicken and keeping it juicily tender beneath some serious char
With a seasoning this special, you need to be choosy about your chicken. Free-range, all-natural has to be your baseline. To build great taste from that solid foundation, bone-in, skin-on thighs are the way to go.
The bones are a really grand heat conductor, which means they help with nicely even cooking — and they definitely boost the flavor of the thighs. Skin-on matters because you’ll be retaining all the wonderfully savory fat, and, at the same time, you’ll have the ideal surface for the blackening char that’s essential for Jamaican jerk chicken.
This charring isn’t about giving the thighs a nice golden tan. It’s about fast, scorching heat that heightens the jerks intense flavors. But, that sort of deeply darkening heat only comes into play right at the end of a cooking process that begins far less fiercely. The result? Well, you’ll have a thinnish, jerk-infused crusting over the thighs’ juicily tender meat.
And that tenderness comes from starting the chicken with some fairly low-and-slow frying in a stove-top skillet. The thighs get enough of that moderate heat to just cook them right through — so they’re ready for a fast, charring session under a very hot broiler / grill.
Side dishes? There are lots of contenders for Jamaican jerk chicken.
Rice would be a dandy choice — especially if it features some coconut. French fries are always a treat with the sort of spicily hot treatment you’re giving the chicken.
A couple of other suggestions would be lightly fried disks of red-skinned sweet potato, and a salsa-like, roasted mix of red bell peppers, yellow bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. That’s the pair I happily opted for, and was very pleased with how their sweetness offset the big, bold flavors of the jerk chicken.
What I’d definitely serve with the jerk chicken is some quarters of fresh lime — to be squeezed liberally over the thighs. Lovely!
Jamaican Jerk Chicken
For the jerk seasoning
- 4 fresh scotch bonnet peppers or 4 fresh habaneros. By all means, swap these for something a little less fiery — bird’s eye chilies would be my choice, and I’d use at least 6, fresh red ones.
- 1 heaped tablespoon allspice berries coarsely ground in a pestle and mortar
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg freshly grated is the way to go
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger root grated
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 heaped tablespoon dark brown sugar I used Muscovado, but Demerara will be fine
- 8 cloves garlic plump ones
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled, and halved
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
For the chicken
- 3 ½ pounds bone-in, skin-on free range chicken thighs that weight gave me 10 thighs
- 4 tablespoons sunflower oil
Preparing the jerk seasoning
- Simply add all the ingredients to your food processor, and blitz the lot to a smooth paste.
- Now check the jerk for chili heat — if you want to up the heat, now’s the time to do it by adding some more of your selected chilies.
Preparing the chicken
- Pour the blitzed jerk paste into a mixing bowl that will easily hold all the chicken thighs. Add the thighs, and use your fingers to give them a really thorough — and I mean thorough — coating of the hot and spicy jerk. Set the bowl aside for an hour — that’s ample time for the jerk to do its work on the chicken.
Cooking the jerk chicken
- This begins by removing the thighs from the jerk seasoning. Use you fingers to wipe off any excess jerk so that the chicken just has an even coating of it. Make sure to keep the wiped-off jerk in the bowl — it’s going to be used to baste the thighs just before they go under your hot broiler / grill, and then once more halfway through their charring.
- Time now for some gentle frying of the thighs. Set a big, heavy skillet on a low-medium heat, and add the oil. I used a deep-sided, 12-inch skillet for this frying.
- Let the oil heat for a minute, then add the thighs — skin-side up — in a single layer across the skillet. You might find that all the thighs won’t fit in the skillet all at once — that’s fine, just fry them in two batches.
- You’re aiming here to fry the thighs gently for about 12 minutes on one side over that low-medium heat. Then turn them so that they can gently fry for another 5 minutes, skin-side down. Good. Turn off the heat, and let the thighs sit in the skillet as you turn your broiler / grill to high and wait for it to come up to heat.
- Now transfer the thighs to a non-stick baking tray — skin-side up. Space them apart evenly on the tray, and give their tops a thorough coating with the jerk seasoning. Leave enough jerk in the bowl so that you can give the thighs a similar basting after they’ve had their first 90 seconds under the broiler.
- As soon as your broiler / grill is hot, slide in the tray so that the thighs are about 3 inches below that high-heat. Let the thighs sizzle away for 90 darkly-charring seconds, then remove the tray, and baste the thighs’ tops with the last of the jerk seasoning.
- Return the tray to the broiler, and give the thighs another 90 seconds’ charring under that sizzling hot heat. Done. Serve immediately.