On hot summer afternoons, it's not unusual to smell a whiff of smoke in the air wafting from a backyard barbecue. But if you get a billow of smoke that's sweet, spicy and woodsy all at once, a smoke so fragrant that it becomes almost intoxicating, then you're probably in the vicinity of jerk chicken being made. Lucky you.
Here in the U.S., the Jamaican grilling method has developed a following of fanatics, who can be seen standing in long queues to get a bite of the perfectly lacquered, charred-in-all-the-right-spots hunks of meat that leave you with a lingering heat—and in need of a stack of wet naps.
After spending many hours in Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood eating at countless jerk chicken stands and testing different marinades and methods, our associate food editor, Katy Peetz, and I came up with a recipe (see it here) and tips that will help you perfect jerk chicken at home.
Though there are so many interpretations of jerk chicken, Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice berries are nonnegotiables. The stout, fiery Scotch bonnet pepper not only adds heat, it also imparts a sweet, tropical fruit flavor. Depending on where you live, the pepper may be difficult to find, but its close cousin, the habanero, can be used in a pinch. Both peppers contain that bright fruit flavor; it's just more apparent in Scotch bonnets.
As for the allspice, we should really just refer to it as Jamaican pepper, as it was originally called. It eventually became known as allspice, because of its aroma and flavor from a blend of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Use whole allspice berries rather than the ground stuff, as the berries will give a brighter aroma and deeper, more complex overall flavor.
Bay leaves thrown directly on the charcoal provide the aromatics.
For the remaining aromatics, we want to freshen up the traditional blend, and ultimately go with fresh thyme leaves and fresh ginger. To that, we add scallions, shallots, garlic, brown sugar, lime juice and lime zest. When all of the ingredients are combined and puréed, a powerful, incredibly fragrant paste is formed.
The Right Cut
You can use the marinade on just about any meat, but we're sticking with chicken—more specifically, chicken leg quarters. We rub the chicken with the marinade (while wearing gloves—those Scotch bonnets mean business!) and arrange the pieces on a wire rack before placing it in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least four hours or up to 36 hours, so the flavors can adhere to the meat.
After low and slow cooking, the chicken lays atop the coals until charred.
The traditional method for cooking the chicken is to arrange the meat atop pimento wood (same place where those allspice berries come from) set over charcoal in massive grills. Once the wood begins to release a cloud of white smoke, the chicken steams while getting smoked, resulting in really tender meat.
Because pimento wood branches aren't easy to find here in the U.S., we prepare a charcoal grill for indirect heat and add a handful of soaked allspice berries and bay leaves directly over the charcoal. Once the leaves and allspice begin to smolder, we place the chicken on the cooler side of the grill, cover (DO NOT PEEK INSIDE!) and cook low and slow, so that the smoke infuses into the meat and cooks the chicken. Once the chicken is done, we uncover it, add more soaked bay leaves and allspice berries, and cook it directly over the coals until it's charred, crisp and perfectly jerked.
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