Jerk seasoning is a seasoning which has been traditionally used in the curing process of chicken and beef in Jamaica. In addition to being used to make dried meats, it is also a popular dry rub or marinade for barbecue, and it may be used on other meats such as pork as well as vegetarian options like tofu. Pre-packaged jerk seasoning can be found in some markets, and it is also possible to make it at home, for people who want to adjust the flavor and spiciness to their tastes.
The “jerk” in jerk seasoning comes from charqui, the Quecha root word for “jerky,” meaning “dried meat.” After Spanish explorers were introduced to Native American dried meats, they brought them to Europe and also made them in their colonies. Caribbean colonies made a lot of preserved meats because jerky was the only effective way to cure meat in the heat of the islands. Over time, people developed their own unique cures for the various meats that they made, and jerk seasoning was born.
Many different forms of jerk seasoning exist throughout the Caribbean, but most people think specifically of Jamaican jerk when they think about this seasoning. Jamaican jerk is characterized by the use of allspice and thyme, as well as an abundance of peppers. The heat of the peppers helped to preserve the meat while it cured, ensuring that it would be safe to eat, and many people also acquired a taste for hot food as a result.
Traditional Jamaican jerk is a dry rub which is used to cure a meat for several days before the process of slow smoking and wind drying begins. At the end of the curing and drying process, spicy jerky is left behind; this meat can be stored for extended periods of time, and used in a variety of recipes. Many modern cooks like to use Jamaican jerk for freshly served barbecued meats, in which case it is sometimes turned into a marinade or paste with the addition of liquids.
To make a more traditional dry rub Jamaican jerk, blend three teaspoons each of salt and ground allspice. Add two teaspoons each of thyme, sugar, and cracked black pepper, along with one teaspoon each ground red pepper, garlic powder, and dried onion. Add one half teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg to the blend, and follow with a crushed Scotch Bonnet pepper. Deseed the pepper if you want your jerk seasoning less spicy, and wear gloves while you handle it. For a marinade, use fresh rather than dried ingredients, and add a hint of rum to make a paste which can be rubbed onto the meat.