Top tips for great jerk

The question I get asked the most when shopping on Rye Lane is, “do you actually eat those chilli peppers?!” This usually comes from a man of Caribbean background of a certain age; they’re always amazed that this little White English girl even knows what jerk is, let alone makes it in her own home. Cue smiles, wistful eyes and tales from the tropics. Don’t even think about asking for a recipe though, it’s a short cut to the end of the conversation.

I don’t claim to have the best jerk recipe out there; I still aspire to the heady heights of Smokey Jerkey in New Cross, but I have learned a thing or two about cooking it through repeated mistakes, research and tips that people send to me. Here are those things, in a list. A list! With bullet points and everything.

– Grind your own allspice berries; makes all the difference. It’s all about freshness with spices; ready-ground have the tendency to taste dusty and lose pungency. Pestle the berries yourself in a mortar, they crush easily and you get to suck up the scent while you pound.

– Use a lot of sugar in your recipe. This tip I picked up from Josh. It was one of those beautiful moments when you work out what your recipe has been missing. I also add a tablespoon of molasses to mine, which gives a dark, sticky quality. Thanks to Laura for that one.

– Don’t ever, EVER be tempted to use different chillies in place of scotch bonnets. SB’s are the cornerstone of jerk flavour; no other pepper has the same fruity tingle. Just be careful when preparing them and de-seed if you like (I do) . There are actually quite a few varieties of Caribbean chilli (e.g. Trinidad Scorpion, Billy Goat, Jamaican Gold), but we only seem to get the one variety here.

– Always marinate overnight.

– Don’t use too much sauce. It’s tempting to leave a thick layer on when you’re grilling but don’t, it will just burn. If you’ve given it a good marinating overnight then the flavour should have seeped right in and all that’s left to do is cook it properly…

– Cook on a BBQ. The major problem with cooking jerk at home is the lack of a cooking drum. This is a barrel turned on its side and mounted on legs, basically (see above). The jerk is grilled over coals like a BBQ.

– This is an absolute blinder of a tip – sent on to me by a reader (cheers Joe). Those tantalising wafts of smoke you get coming from the jerk drums?  They come from spritzing the coals – with BEER. This creates more smoke which you can then seal inside with your meat or fish.

– Same reader, second awesome pointer: throw some soaked pimento (allspice) berries into the coals so when you spray them with the BEER, they sizzle and flavour the smoke.

– Cook the jerk on bay leaves, like this.

– And finally, I find it best to use the indirect BBQ cooking method because this recipe has a lot of sugar in it and any direct flame with burn the shizzle out of it. Build your coals in a pyramid shape in the centre of the BBQ, then when they are lit, leave until they turn white. At this point you can move them to the sides of the BBQ, put your meat in the centre of the grill and put the lid on. The heat will circulate inside but there will be no fat dripping onto coals and therefore no flaring. You can also cook large joints of meat in this way.

– And so ends the summary of my jerk-cooking know-how. Now come on, I know there are some tips tingling on your fingertips right now. I can sense it. Tell me.

You can find my current jerk recipe here and I must remind you that The Food Event of The Year is coming up soon – The Jerk Cookout Festival. If you look at my post about it last year, then you’ll see a comment from Joe, who heard a rumour about it being moved to Brockwell Park this year, having outgrown its usual venue – the gardens of The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. Watch this space. I’m all over it.

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26 thoughts on “Top tips for great jerk

  1. Due to the overwhelming response the jerk Cookout has moved the event to Brockwell Park in Herne Hill.

    August 15, 2010 Sunday

  2. I wonder if the type of beer makes a difference. Do you think using something really distinctive and full-flavoured might impart its own character?

  3. Wow! Honoured you included my tip and are getting great feedback – it seems we all love some jerk!

    The tip about the drum (they call them pans in Jamaica) is very important. Most BBQ’s don’t have a lid or enough space between the cooking grates and the charcoals, whereas a pan has enough space that the meat won’t burn and is able to smoke thoroughly. Yours looks great by the way – you are now officially our “Ambassador of Jerk!”

  4. Reading this reminds me for some of the curried goat you made me, you do like chillies don’t you! Have a birthday bbq coming and I’ve think I’ll give your jerk recipe a go.

    One thing Helen, beer is for consuming purposes only on steaming hot sunny days not for chucking on the barbie you wasteful, wasteful girl.

  5. What a gem of a post Helen – I was looking for some inspiration for our next barby and this is definitely it. My husband will definitely be interested in reading about the arrangement of coals – he likes to get all technical about barbies (yawn)

  6. Manne – I don’t know yet as details haven’t been released but I am all over it as I said. Will keep the ear to the ground and let you know!

    Rambo – Oh yes I have indeed. I adore everything he has ever written. It is incredible what they do over there I agree. I bought a book called ‘Extreme BBQ’ recently and boy does that have some amazing rigs in it. Sadly, it also has a load of hugely disappointing recipes. I’m going to re-read some Steingarten I think.

  7. Love love love it. So amazingly useful and I plan to do some experimenting when I go up north in a couple of weeks (no barby here, alas).

    Have you read Steingarten’s essay on barbecue? Extraordinary to see the love and care that goes into it in the states.

  8. Excellent! Totally agree with you on all points, especially the allspice – it doesn’t keep its flavour when ground at all. The only tip I have is a purely subjective one that a lot of people would disagree with – I never add as much as salt as traditional recipes.

  9. And to think I made jerk pork last night (using your recipe, I might add), without knowing there was this amazing follow up! Oh well, I’ll just have to make some more. Soon.

  10. what an experience. the jerk chicken looks absolutely perfectly spiced and delicious. when making tikkas in pakistan, i think they do the same, place the coal in a pyramid shape initially. such a brilliant way of doing things. i so do wish they would spritz the coal with beer though! x shayma

  11. Oh gosh, this is really useful!

    I’m a big fan of slow cooking in oven and then going over to the BBQ, just so I get the combo of tender tender meat, with the smoky flavor as well. Brown sugar, and lots of butter are a must for me.


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