One of my favorite flavors to use in savory dishes is a good dose of Jamaican jerk. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing quite so enticing as this robust, complex, full-bodied seasoning which was originally developed as a dry rub or marinade for preserving meat smoked over an open pit (traditionally of allspice wood). The history of this seasoning is based in a cultural melting pot that spread across the Caribbean Islands. Some of the influencing people groups include the Chinese, West African slaves and native Arawak Indians, among others.
Though the origins of the name “jerk” are not precisely known and the recipes vary widely, there are three main ingredients that most connoisseurs of the seasoning would say are essential: Thyme, Pepper and Allspice. There are also a number of “trade secrets” that enthusiasts swear by. Some insist that Scotch bonnet peppers must be used, while others contend that it isn’t jerk unless the spices are acquired whole, delicately toasted and freshly ground before blending the complex fusion of flavors.
Personally, I love making my own seasoning from scratch, but I usually don’t have the luxury of going to such lengths as toasting whole spices and grinding them myself (though I’m sure the technique would produce an absolutely heavenly seasoning!) Instead, I purchase spices that have already been ground, throw the ingredients into a pint-sized mason jar, and shake liberally. Coincidentally, most parmesan cheese shaker caps fit mason jars, which is a plus when it comes to storing your own spice mixes (more on this later)! I’ve found that I like the following balance of flavors best, but feel free to experiment yourself and see what suites your fancy!
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar (remove lumps with fingers or by pushing through a sieve)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons thyme
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
I’m sure you noticed that the first ingredient is dark brown sugar…. a quarter cup of it, in fact. Yes, I like my jerk sweet (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) but the sugar, as well as the salt, can be reduced or omitted completely based on personal preference or dietary necessity. I also am not a huge fan of thyme, so I will often cut it half and half with oregano, even though this is not considered true to form for this type of seasoning (shame on me, I know). Additionally, I tend to go easy on the heat, calling for only one teaspoon of red pepper flakes, simply because half of the diners at my kitchen table are under three years old. I prefer to make it through supper without having to pull out the garden hose followed by ten boxes of tissues, as I am partial to children with full bellies rather than blistered lips. And lastly, sweet paprika will work well if you find yourself in a bind and can’t locate any of the smoked variety. The smoked version, however, adds an amazing complexity to the mix. The aroma of the smoked paprika makes up for a portion of the flavor that would have been imparted to the dish if it had been slowly smoked over an open fire. I don’t know about you, but I just can’t seem to find the time to cook many meals over an open pit of burning allspice boughs these days…. and thus enters the hero of the evening, smoked paprika, stage left.
Now, if you’d like to turn this spice rub into a marinade, start by adding two tablespoons of olive oil and 1/4 cup of soy sauce. If the marinade is too thick, continue adding soy sauce until it reaches the desired consistency. If you are concerned about salt content, you can try replacing some of the soy sauce with vinegar or even orange juice, which will give it an additional flavor boost.
For storage, I like to make up this recipe in bulk and keep the rub in a pint jar (quadrupling the recipe usually comes close to a pint). As mentioned earlier, most parmesan cheese shaker caps fit mason jars, which makes life that much better: not only do I get to use my mason jars for yet another purpose (I’m a borderline addict), but I get to recycle too! If storing the marinade, I’ve found that I can keep it for at least a week, tightly capped in the fridge. (I can’t tell you the true shelf life because we love it so much, we’ve never had any left past a week.)
If you’ve never tried Jamaican jerk, the time has come! And conversely, if you keep regular company with a bunch of jerks in your kitchen (insert wry grin) I’d love to hear from you and get your take on things! How do you like to prepare your own version of this time-honored seasoning? What are your tips and tricks? What do you like to put it on best?