Inspired by the flavors of Jamaican Jerk Chicken, this recipe starts with an aromatic and spicy jerk marinade (with citrus and heat), and then grilled for the perfect texture and flavor. You’re going to love this recipe!
The marinade and recipe are also gluten-free and dairy-free.
This is a recipe that has been in the making for a very long time. Hundreds of people have asked us over the years for a jerk chicken recipe, and we finally decided to dig deep and come up with one that respects the history and origins of this dish. This version starts with an aromatic and spicy jerk marinade, and then grill until slightly charred and crispy. But the real story was what we learned when researching and learning the history of jerk chicken.
What is Jerk Chicken
Jerk Chicken is a culinary style of marinated and grilled chicken that originated in Jamaica. The authentic method is to marinade pork or chicken in a mixture of aromatic herbs, spices, citrus, and peppers and then cook the meat over fire to produce an aromatic and spicy meal. The word jerk comes from the Spanish word charqui, or dried meat like jerky.
Grilling meat has been found to slightly increase the risk of diseases such as cancer due to the high heat resulting in chemicals being exposed to people. One method to mitigate this problem is incorporating your meat with marinade, which is exactly how jerk chicken is prepared! Our jerk chicken is coated with marinade for a whole day before being cooked. For this reason and several others, jerk chicken is considered much healthier grilled, friend and other styles of making chicken.
Jerk cooking was the fusion of flavors and cooking style of the Jamaican native tribes (Arawak and Taino) and escaped African slaves (Maroons). It started primarily as a pork dish and evolved to include chicken and other proteins.
It’s said that the native tribes used various native herbs and spices to cook wild hog for centuries. Then the Maroons introduced the techniques of marinating and open fire pits for jerking, or cooking the meat over charcoal, after they escaped Spanish rule when the British invaded the islands.
Over the centuries, the flavors likely evolved with the introduction of soy as Chinese labor came to the Caribbean in the mid 1800s. Open fire pits also evolved to barrels and more modern grills that can be seen around the island.
How to Make Jerk Chicken
The steps are not that complicated, it just takes time to prepare and for the jerk chicken marinade to work its magic.
- Marinade: Start by making a jerk marinade in a blender. Marinate the chicken for at least 24 hours.
- Grill: Grill the chicken using a two-zone method of grilling to avoid burning the chicken.
Chef’s Tip: Reserve some of the marinade (before it is mixed with the raw chicken) as a dipping sauce served on the side.
Types of Meat
We are grilling with skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks. The darker meat is richer in flavor and the skin, when grilled, gets nice and crispy. You can also do this with the entire leg (which is the thigh and drumstick together).
This can also work with chicken breasts.
Jerk Chicken Marinade Ingredients
The ingredient combinations of Caribbean jerk marinade can be adjusted to your liking but here are the core ingredients:
- Heat: Scotch Bonnet Peppers are the traditional hot pepper for jerk chicken, bringing heat to the marinade. Another alternative is habanero peppers which are slightly less hot (but also more common to see in the stores).
- Citrus: Orange and lime juice bring an acidic flavor balancing the heat.
- Aromatics: Allspice is the key ingredient for aromatics. This dried berry is a key part of an authentic jerk marinade. We use our jerk seasoning as the aromatic base and then add fresh ginger.
- Savory: Onions and garlic add savory flavors including green onion (or scallions) and red onion. In addition to the onions.
- Liquids: We add soy and apple cider vinegar as addition liquids. It adds an acidic balance to the marinade and a rich deep flavor.
The easiest way to make the jerk chicken marinade is to combine all the ingredients into a quality blender and then pulse until it’s a liquid like consistency.
Chef’s Tip: If you want a dipping sauce this is when to reserve some of the marinade. Prior to marinating the chicken, set aside about a ¼ cups worth to be served later with the cooked meat.
Place the chicken in a gallon size baggie and then add the marinade. Close the bag, remove as much air as possible and then seal it. Marinate for at least 24 hours in a refrigerator and occasionally move the marinade and chicken around every few hours to get the marinade exposed to as much surface area of the chicken as possible.
You can adjust your flavors based on preferences, but I would start with this combination and then change from there. You can add olive oil to add an emulsified element, but we find the consistency with this dish is perfect.
Grilling Jerk Chicken
We will follow a two-zone method of grilling over charcoal to get that nice grilled flavor.
- Prepare the grill for two-zone grilling. We use lump charcoal for better flavor. Target 450 – 500 degrees ambient temperature in the grill.
- When the grill is at temperature, remove the chicken from the jerk marinade and place over direct heat. You should hear a good sear when the chicken hits the grill grates. Discard the marinade.
- Grill the chicken direct for 3 – 5 minutes or until you see nice char marks develop. Then flip and grill again over direct heat for another 3 minutes until nice char marks form.
- Move the chicken to indirect heat and then close the lid. Continue cooking for an additional 12 minutes or until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 165 – 175 degrees Fahrenheit using a good quality instant-read thermometer like the Thermoworks MK4 Thermapen. Chicken legs can handle the higher finishing temperature than a breast (which is why we recommend up to 175 for legs).
- Remove from heat, and let rest 10 minutes. Then enjoy.
If you are using this process for chicken breasts, follow the same process, but cook the chicken until the internal temperature is 160 – 163 degrees Fahrenheit. The carry over cooking will take it over 165 degrees Fahrenheit while it rests.
Other Jerk and Chicken Inspired Recipes
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Jerk Chicken Recipe
- 1 gallon plastic bag
- 4 chicken thighs, skin on
- 4 chicken drumsticks, skin on
- ½ cup red onion, roughly chopped (about ½ an onion)
- ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice (about one large navel orange)
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 6 whole green onions or scallions, roots slightly trimmed
- 4 whole habanero peppers, stems removed
- 3 tablespoons jerk seasoning
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 whole lime, freshly squeezed
To Marinate the Chicken
- In a blender, combine all ingredients. Pulse until the marinade is a thin liquidt texture. If you want to reserve any for a dipping sauce, reserve ¼ cup now and set aside.
- In a gallon size plastic bag, add chicken and then pour in marinade. Gently remove any excess air and seal the bag. Using your hands move the chicken around to incorporate the chicken and flavor. Marinate for at least 24 hours in a refrigerator.
- Prepare your grill for two-zone grilling using lump charcoal. Target 450 – 500 degrees Fahrenheit (F) as the ambient grill temperature.
- When the grill is at temperature, remove the chicken from the marinade and place over direct heat. You should hear a good sear when the chicken hits the grill grates. Discard the remaining marinade. Grill the chicken direct for 3 – 5 minutes or until you see nice char marks develop.
- Then flip and grill again over direct heat for another 3 minutes until nice char marks form.
- Remove from heat, and let rest 10 minutes. Then enjoy.