Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Jerk is one of Jamaica’s most celebrated contributions to global cuisine. Nowadays, however, jerk often simply implies a type of seasoning or marinade for meats that are thrown on the grill—but it is so much more. Jerking meat is not like grilling; it’s a slow-smoking and roasting process over an open flame. Good Jamaican jerk meat, such as jerk pork, is salty, spicy, and smokey. Traditionally it is always prepared over a pimento wood fire pit called a jerk pit—a simple concrete flat top barbecue with elevated sides and a section that holds hot coals and is topped with long pimento wood grill grates.

The History of Jamaican Jerk

The original method was created by the Maroons, a group of free Africans who fled slavery to live in the mountains in their own communities, and the Tainos, Jamaica’s indigenous population. The original Jamaican barbecue (or jerk pit) is actually a Taino invention. The word “barbecue” is itself a corruption of the Arawak word barbacoa, meaning “heated sticks.” The barbacoa was made of heated pimento wood on a raised platform and was used to “jerk” wild pigs. The Maroons developed a signature blend of herbs, spices, hot peppers, and pimento leaves, which they used when cooking the wild pigs they captured in the Blue Mountains which perfected the unique jerk flavor. 

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Pimento wood is an essential part of jerk, and without it, it cannot really be called jerk—simply having a jerk marinade is not enough. The meat must be marinated with the pimento berries (or allspice), and the leaves are also used in the cooking process, as is the wood itself; this method is what makes it jerk.

The pimento tree is indigenous to the Caribbean Islands. It was found in Jamaica by early Spanish explorers who were astonished by the powerful taste and aroma of the berries and the leaves. The name pimento originates from the Spanish word “pimienta,” for pepper or peppercorn, as the berries were said to resemble them. Pimento berries have the subtle taste of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper, all rolled into one spice—hence the name allspice.

The Traditional Jerk Pit Set-Up

In traditional jerk establishments, this cooking method that relies on pimento wood and open fire is still maintained. A furnace is created, the pimento wood is lit and stoked until charred and a coal bed established, and a low and steady flame burns. The wood sticks are then brought to the concrete pit and laid over the top of burning coals; the meat is put directly on these pimento wood sticks and covered with a lid of galvanized zinc to trap the smoke. 

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

The trick to preserving the sticks and allowing the meat to cook slowly is to turn the sticks every three minutes or so, so that they do not get overheated or burn out in one spot. When fat drippings drop into the coals and flames flair up, the pimento sticks are rotated, which prevents them from burning too quickly. The meat on the grill is covered with a large zinc sheet to allow it to smoke. When a stick does eventually burn out or is too brittle, it is removed from the grill and replaced with a fresh one. The fire is maintained at a low and slow temperature throughout the day.

The high levels of smoke and the combination of the coal, pimento wood, and the seasoning of the intensely flavored jerk marinade is what gives you the quintessential jerk flavor—this is what true jerk is. As a result of the dedication and time needed to achieve this, jerk is not something we Jamaicans typically make at home. Traditional jerk is something we go out and buy or eat when we are traveling on a road trip.

How To Cook Jerk Pork at Home

For those who don’t have close access to a traditional Jamaican jerk establishment, good jerk can still be enjoyed at home with the proper cooking set-up. The easiest way to recreate the jerk process at home is to use a charcoal grill in a way that mimics the drum pans that we use in Jamaica for roadside pan chicken. 

The key to cooking any meat with this set-up is to cook over a combination of coal and wood. Here we opt for a large pork shoulder roast with lots of tough and flavorful connective tissue that is ideal for low and slow cooking on the grill. The large pork butt will turn tender, juicy, and incredibly flavorful from the slow smoking process.  It’s important to debone and butterfly the roast to create a flat and large surface area for the salty and spicy jerk marinade to cling. This shape also creates more area for the pork to have direct contact with the open heat while on the grill.

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To mimic the traditional jerk pit with a charcoal grill,  the lit and hot coals are spread out evenly over half of the grill bottom, leaving half of the grill without lit coals. This creates an indirect heat zone for the pork to cook over. If the pork were to cook with too much direct heat the result would be pork with an overcooked and leathery exterior with a still undercooked and tough interior.

To properly jerk pork, you need to go low and slow with indirect heat so there is time to tenderize the larger tough cut of pork while also developing its smokey nuanced signature jerk flavor. It’s key that the temperature on the grill remains low, in the 300°F/150°C or lower range. If the fire flames up too much from the fat drippings while cooking, we usually douse it with a little Red Stripe beer or water to temper the flames down to control the heat. Alternatively, if the coal is burning out and the temperature drops too low, we add more hot coals (usually around 15 to 20 at a time) to the grill.

What To Serve With Jerk Pork

Although not written directly in this recipe, we typically also throw some provisions directly on the coals to roast alongside the meat—ripe plantain, green plantain, breadfruit, sweet potato or yellow yam are great options to roast in their skin while the pork is smoking.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Jerk is also delicious with festival (a cornmeal based fried dumpling a bit like a hush puppy) or simply with buttered Jamaican hardo bread. Although proper jerk is sufficiently spicy, a homemade pepper sauce is great to serve on the side, but this jerk pork doesn’t always need it. We personally like to mix plain old ketchup with some pepper sauce and use that as a dip.

For the Jerk Marinade: In a blender, combine water, Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, ginger, onion, garlic, salt, thyme springs, allspice berries and browning, if using. Blend into a smooth puree, (in batches if needed), about 1 minute. (see notes)

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In a medium saucepan, bring jerk marinade to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced to a paste-like consistency and measures about 3 1/2 cups, about 20 minutes.

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Remove from heat and let cool, about 1 hour at room temperature, then refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.

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For the Jerk Pork: Using a sharp paring knife, Cut through one side of the pork shoulder to the bone, following the length of the bone. Cut around the bone and keep cutting to within an inch of the other side of the shoulder. Open the pork shoulder flat like a book. Cut under the bone and remove it to finish butterflying the roast open. The roast should now be splayed flat and measure about 3-inches thick.

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With the pork shoulder butterflied open skin-side up on the cutting board, use a sharp knife to score the skin 1/2 -inch deep and 1- inch apart to create evenly spaced parallel cuts. Flip pork over and repeat on the flesh side.

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Season pork lightly all over with salt and pepper. Transfer pork to a large baking dish (9 by 13-inch) or a half-hotel pan. Using gloved hands, rub 2 cups of the jerk marinade all over pork, making sure to get some inside cuts and crevices. Next, rub bruised pimento (or bay or banana) leaves between your hands to release the natural oils, then rub leaves all over the marinated pork on all sides. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 or up to 24 hours.

Serious Eats / Lorena MassoFor a Charcoal Grill: Light a chimney full of charcoal briquettes (about 6 quarts). When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out an arrange coal on one side of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Cover grill and wait until temperature falls to about 300°F (150°C), adding chunks of wood (or wood briquettes or chips) when at temperature. (Follow here for how to set up a kettle grill with indirect heat as a smoker.) When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, remove pork from marinade, letting excess marinade drip off into pan, then transfer to grill (on cooler side if cooking with indirect heat) skin side up. Cover with the pimento leaves from the marinade, and close the lid. Cook, undisturbed, until the meat begins to caramelize and char on the bottom side, about 1 hour.Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove the leaves, turn pork skin side down, then reposition on the cooler side of the grill and re-cover with the leaves. Continue to cook, covered, until beginning to char on the now-bottom side of the pork, about 1 hour. (Adjust heat by adding coals and/or adjusting the air vents to maintain grill temperature around 300℉ (150°C).) Add extra wood chunks to coals as needed to maintain smoke.)

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Remove the leaves, flip pork, keeping on the cooler side of the grill, re-cover with the leaves, and continue to cook until pork is well charred all over and interior reaches 185°F (85°C), 1 to 2 hours longer, flipping pork and repositioning leaves as needed for even charring. 

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Transfer pork to a work surface, discard leaves, and let rest for 30 minutes. Slice pork into thick slices or chop in rough chunks, which is how they serve it in Jamaica.

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Serve with festival, pickled Scotch bonnet peppers, and ketchup on the side.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Blender, charcoal- or wood-burning grill, pimento or sweet wood briquettes or wood chips

Notes

Jerk is traditionally very spicy and salty (and it is supposed to be that way) so gauge the level of heat that you want and adjust the quantity of Scotch bonnet peppers and salt that you use accordingly, based on your own palate. If you want it intensely spicy, use 3/4 pound Scotch bonnet peppers; if you want jerk seasoning that is still very hot but not quite as extreme, use 1/2 pound. Similarly, you can reduce the salt to suit your preference.

Pimento wood briquettes and chips are available online in the United States. If you are unable to find pimento wood, use your preferred sweet wood for smoking, such as apple or cherry woods.

Allspice (or pimento, as it’s called in Jamaica) leaves are slightly larger than bay leaves and much smaller than banana leaves, making it difficult to give a quantity in this recipe. Allspice leaves will be the hardest to find. The idea is to have enough leaves that you can cover the meat and trap the smoke. Dried bay leaves that are soaked to soften will also work as a substitution. If you can’t find any of these leaves, you can use sheets of aluminum foil instead.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The jerk seasoning marinade can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. 

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