Everything You Need to Know About Jerk Seasoning
No matter where you are in the world, authentic Jamaican cooking can immediately transport you and your taste buds to a tropical oasis, thanks to the distinctive flavors of the island nation’s go-to spice blend. And while Caribbean cuisine is still on the rise across the U.S., these flavors have been the foundation of Jamaica’s culinary landscape for centuries.
The essence of jerk cooking is meat that has been dry-rubbed or marinated in Jamaican jerk seasoning—a rich, slightly spicy combination of a number of native herbs and spices—and cooked traditionally over hot coals. The result of this unique kind of cooking is a savory, smoky, and flavorful plate of beef, pork, fish, chicken, or even vegetables, fit for a seaside feast.
Though jerk seasoning can vary from blend to blend and kitchen to kitchen, some of the fundamental ingredients of the warm, welcoming combination include allspice, nutmeg, ginger, onion, garlic, cinnamon, thyme, cloves, and more—all of which can be found growing on Jamaica’s lush land.
The word “jerk” itself can refer to the way meat is rotated over burning coals during the cooking process, or the way it is chopped up once it’s ready to serve. The origin of this process and some of the essential ingredients involved dates back to the indigenous people of the Caribbean, who would save their wild boar meat from spoiling by preserving it in a mixture of salt, nutmeg, thyme, and pepper.
However, the beginning of modern jerk cooking can be traced to a group of slaves that were brought to Jamaica by the British throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to help maintain the steady stream of exports being traded out of the country. Over time, groups of these slaves, who were later named ‘Maroons’, would escape and flee into the mountains, learning to live off of what the land provided to them.
Many of these groups integrated into tribes of indigenous people, combining the Jamaican’s ingredients and longstanding preservation methods with their own West African cooking traditions—namely, pit cooking meat over hot stones. These resourceful hunters would marinade their daily catch in a unique blend of herbs and spices that could be found nearby in order to create flavorful, satisfying meals out of what they had available.
Today, jerk cooking and seasoning is bigger than ever, as the island’s flavors have spread beyond Jamaica into the rest of the world. While Boston Bay in Jamaica is still considered the epicenter of jerk cooking, it’s also incredibly easy to make your own Caribbean-inspired meals at home, with a store-bought seasoningor Homemade Jamaican Jerk Seasoning blend of your own making.
This fragrant spice blend can be used as a dry rub or marinade on pretty much any kind of protein, in order to create a flavorful meal that will transport you to the tropics. Give your new favorite seasoning a shot in Jamaican Jerk Chicken Wings with Cilantro-Lime Ranch, Jerk Shrimp with Grilled Onion, Avocado, and Mango Salsa, or Jerk Mackerel with Papaya Salad and you’ll practically be able to feel the breeze off the sea and the sand between your toes.
To learn the history behind some of your other favorite spice blends, check out Everything You Need to Know About Herbes de Provence, Dukkah, and Adobo Seasoning.