What Is Jerk Seasoning? The Story Behind The Spice

Jerk seasoning refers to a blend of herbs and spices used in jerk cooking. Jerk seasoning can be a wet paste consisting of fresh ingredients and dry spices, or it might be the dry spices alone. Jerk seasoning is traditionally used on pork and chicken. What is its history? Flavor profile? Common uses? Let’s dive into the story behind the spice.

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The history of jerk seasoning

Jerk cooking (also called jerking) is native to Jamaica. It is believed to be a combination of cooking techniques from three separate and very different cultures. The first of those cooking cultures is that of the Arawak people, who migrated up to the Caribbean from South America 2500 years ago. Historians believe that the Arawaks brought with them the method of drying meat over low fires that is common in Peru.

After the arrival of Columbus and Spain’s colonization of Jamaica, slaves made up a substantial part of the island’s population. They were brought in to increase the productivity of the island’s sugarcane, coffee, and allspice plantations. Some of these slaves escaped or were left behind after the Spanish left and before the arrival of the British. During the 17th and 18th centuries, they joined up with the Arawaks. These slaves were known as Maroons.

Historians believe that the Maroons combined local spices and European ones to create what we now call jerk seasoning. They also combined African and Arawak slow smoking techniques with allspice wood to cook wild boars they hunted. The method would eventually be used on domesticated pigs.

The name jerk is believed to come from the Quechua word charqui, which refers to dried and salted meat. The “jerk” in jerk seasoning has the same linguistic root as America’s beef jerky.

Today, you can find jerk cooking and jerk seasoning all over Jamaica and on other Caribbean islands as well. While the original jerk cooking was done in a fire pit, these days, it is more common to see half-drum grills being used or special jerk ovens; however, the seasoning has remained largely the same.

Jerk seasoning flavor profile

The spices used in jerk seasoning vary depending on the maker, and cooks may put together their own blends or add ingredients to premade ones. Ingredients typically include garlic and green onions as well as thyme. Most importantly, there is allspice, which is the dominant component in the flavor profiles of jerk dishes. Other spices like cinnamon and ginger are sometimes used as well as soy sauce, which Chinese immigrants brought to the island. Scotch bonnets are the chili of choice in the typical jerk seasoning mix, and they add both heat and a delicious tropical sweetness.

See our version of homemade jerk seasoning that opts for cayenne instead of scotch bonnet. It keeps all ingredients to common spices on the typical spice rack.

Is jerk seasoning spicy?

The heat is one of the most important elements in the flavor of jerk dishes. Jerk seasoning is supposed to be hot, so much so that there is no mild authentic jerk seasoning. As mentioned, the heat usually comes from scotch bonnet peppers though other hot peppers may be substituted.

Scotch bonnets are extra-hot chilies (100,000 to 350,000 Scoville heat units or SHU), among the hottest chilies you find in common recipes. So it’s rare you’ll experience hotter. Of course, scotch bonnet is just one of many ingredients in jerk seasoning, so that heat level is tempered quite a bit.

–> Learn More: Scotch Bonnet Vs. Habanero – How Do They Compare?

Common uses

If you want to replicate the flavor of Jamaican jerk pork with jerk seasoning, it is important to remember that the seasoning plays a limited role. Much of the jerk taste involves the use of allspice wood, also known as pimento wood. The wood is used liberally, and the meat is smoked over it slowly to absorb its unique fragrance.

Jerk seasoning is an effective dry wood whether or not you plan to smoke your food with allspice wood. It will still provide a savory and aromatic complement to most meat, including beef and fish.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on January 17, 2023 to include new content.
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