I live my life with very few regrets, but the closest I've ever come was last winter when my best friend and I decided to try and find the worst bar in Detroit. Seems like an adventure worth having, right? It all started off swimmingly with moody dives, cheap beer, and more characters than the average Twitter message, before quickly devolving into frightening glimpses of what alcoholism, a depressed economy, and a few too many Detroit coneys can do to the mind, body, and soul of a person.
We decided to call it quits before we ended up making any mistakes we couldn't just laugh off in the morning, and capped the night with what was perhaps the most questionable move of the evening: buying and consuming jerk chicken sold from the back of a truck in a darkened alley behind what happened to be one of Dearborn's shadier adult establishments.
It was the best lapse in judgment I've ever made. As soon as the man peddling the chicken opened up the split oil drum and I caught a whiff of the billow of smoke that came out—spicy, sweet, camphorous, and a little woodsy—I knew this was no ordinary back-of-the-strip-club grilled chicken.* This stuff was legit. The legs were spread out on top of lightly smoldering sticks—pimento wood branches from Jamaica, to be precise—the smoke billowing around them, infusing them with flavor.
*You know what I'm talking about, right?
When he handed us the chicken you could already tell the skin, deeply charred in spots, with a burnished mahogany all over, was going to be crisp. It was hot—chili-hot—with the aroma of warm spices like nutmeg and allspice, laced with thyme and ginger. We polished off a leg quarter each on our way back to the car before turning around and grabbing another round to go.
I never expected to taste heaven in that alley, but good food seems to have a way of finding me sometimes. I decided then and there that I'd figure out a way to bring this awesome jerk chicken to my own backyard. Turns out that's easier said than done.
The Real Deal
Before we jump in, let's take a quick look at how jerk chicken is traditionally prepared. The process starts with pieces of chicken that are soaked overnight in a heavily seasoned marinade flavored with fiery Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice—the dried berries native to Jamaica that give jerked foods their characteristic warm spice aroma.
Next, long, thick sticks of fresh pimento wood—that's the wood of the tree that produces allspice berries—are soaked and placed in a parallel array above a charcoal fire. Finally, the marinated chicken is laid directly on top of the green wood and covered up with a metal lid. It ends up cooking via a combination of smoking and steaming, the vapors coming off the pimento wood depositing flavorful compounds on its surface before beginning to smolder slightly, adding a layer of smokiness. Not only that, but it picks up flavorful oils from the wood through its direct contact during cooking. The whole process takes over an hour from start to finish.
Translating this recipe to a backyard grill wasn't going to be easy, particularly not without easy access to pimento wood, but I decided to start with the easy parts and work my way up from there.
First up: the marinade.
I've never been to Jamaica, but I'm pretty certain that they don't use this stuff. Pre-made mixes tend to be a blend of mild chilies, dried thyme, allspice, and salt and sugar. We can do a lot better. Our own Lauren Rothman took a trip to Jamaica for a full-on jerk tour, where she picked up a few tricks she passed our way. According to her, the marinade ingredients vary wildly from recipe to recipe, but they all contain five essential aromatic ingredients: allspice berries, thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, green onions, and fresh ginger.
Depending on where you live, Scotch bonnet peppers can be hard to find. Heck, they can even be hard to identify properly, because they look awfully similar to habaneros, their Mexican counterparts. Both peppers are ridiculously hot,* both start green and eventually ripen into red, yellow, or orange varieties, and both have a distinctly sweet, bright flavor, though this flavor is slightly more emphasized in Scotch bonnets.
*I once made the mistake of not quite scrubbing under my fingernails hard enough after working with habaneros and felt their wrath later that night as I removed my contact lenses. You do not want to do this—wash your hands well, or even consider wearing a pair of latex gloves when handling these bad boys.
How do you tell them apart? Habaneros tend to be more smoothly tapered from their stem to their tip, while Scotch bonnets have a more distinct double-bell shape, their tops spilling over like a fat man wearing a too-tight belt.
The bad news: these identifiers are not always obvious, and many markets will mislabel habaneros and Scotch bonnets. The good news: Either will work with very minimal impact on the overall flavor.
I like using a mix of green and fully ripe chilies so that I get both the green chili's bitterness, and the brighter, sweeter flavors of the ripened chilies.
To get the most flavor out of allspice berries, it's best to start with fresh berries instead of pre-ground powder, which loses its aromatic volatiles much faster due to more exposed surfaces. I grind my allspice berries in a coffee grinder, along with some black peppercorns. Many existing recipes call for some amount of cinnamon, but I found its flavor to be a little too dominant, even when used sparingly, so I left it out, instead adding a grating of fresh nutmeg.
As with cinnamon, dried thyme has a very potent flavor that doesn't exactly play nicely with others. Instead, I used fresh-picked leaves, which are both more mellow and more complex. Fresh ginger, rather than the powdered variety, was also the way to go, and some garlic and scallions rounded out my aromatic profile. Now to focus on the liquid element.
When we're talking marinades, the aromatics are really not much more than window dressing. They're the pretty paint job on the car. Totally necessary if you want to enjoy life, but the engine in the marinade comes down to your choice of liquids and dissolved molecules. Here are the essentials:
- Oil is often a primary ingredient in marinades. Many aromatic compounds, such as those found in garlic, are soluble in oil but not in water. The oil will help spread these flavors evenly across the surface of the meat, as well as lubricating and protecting the meat when it first hits the grill. I use olive oil as the base to mine.
- Salt is absolutely essential. It's one of the few ingredients that penetrates and seasons meat past the outermost layer. Surprisingly, in Jamaica, it's often added in the form of soy sauce. Not only does the soy sauce add salt, but it's also a strongly concentrated form of glutamates, the molecules responsible for triggering our sense of savoriness. In a side-by-side taste test, a marinade made with soy sauce instead of straight up salt actually made my chicken take meatier.
- Sugar, when used in moderation, will help the meat brown better on the grill, creating strong smoky, charred flavors. A touch of sugar also balances salt nicely. I tried adding sugar in various forms—plain sugar, orange juice concentrate, honey—and settled on brown sugar, which also adds a faint touch of bitterness.
- Acid is a tough call. When used sparingly, it can balance flavors and mildly tenderize tough, connective tissue in the outer layers of a piece of meat. Used with a heavy hand, it can denature meat proteins, causing them to turn chalky or dry, even before you've started cooking them. Modern chicken is pretty darn tender to begin with, so there's no real need for acid-based tenderization techniques. I tried making a completely acid-free marinade, but missed the brightness it brought. I settled on using a mixture of lime zest and juice to pack in flavor without turning my chicken tough.
I tried marinating my chicken for various periods of time ranging from immediately before grilling, to up to three days. Chicken cooked without any marinating time was distinctly milder in flavor—it took about 4 hours for the flavor to cling to the surface, while it took an overnight rest for the soy sauce to do its job at seasoning the meat and helping it stay moist during cooking. There wasn't much benefit to marinating longer than this period, though there was no distinct harm either.
Up until now, I'd been testing my marinade recipes by cooking my chicken in the same way that I cook my Barbecued Chicken recipe: butterflying or splitting the chicken so that it lies flat, then cooking it low and slow over the cooler side of the grill before finishing it off directly over the coals.
Leg meat, with its large amount of slow-twitch dark muscle and connective tissue needs to be cooked to about 165°F in order to tenderize fully, while breast meat will start to dry out much higher than 155°F or so. To compensate for this differential, I cook my chicken with the legs pointed towards the hotter side of the grill.
It's an effective method that allows the chicken plenty of time to pick up smoky flavors while cooking evenly through to the center. The final stay over the hot side of the grill serves to crisp up the skin and char the marinade a bit.
I had the marinade and the texture of the chicken exactly where I wanted it. Now to work on that smoke flavor.
Bringing Home the Source
There is only one company in the country that imports real pimento wood directly from Jamaica, so I ordered a batch of sticks from their website. Opening up the box, I was immediately impressed with how much the aroma resembled that of bay leaves. A little bit less eucalyptus and a bit sweeter, but overall quite similar.
Diving a bit further into the research, I discovered that even in Jamaica, bay leaf is often used in conjunction with pimento, and laurel wood (A.K.A. bay leaf) is occasionally used outright to smoke jerk chicken instead of pimento. Interesting, I said to myself, while mentally touching my fingertips together. I'll have to keep this in mind for later. Muahahaha.*
*I'm not quite certain why my internal evil laughter commenced at precisely that moment, but chalked it down to some sort of unknowable premonition.
I soaked the sticks in water as instructed, placed them on the cooler side of the grill along with a layer of soaked bay leaves (also as instructed), and placed the chicken on top of the wood (for this set of tests I used straight up chicken legs, which I sometimes prefer for their juicier texture and more robust flavor), adding some soaked pimento wood chips and bay leaves to the coal to produce smoke.
An hour later, after finishing the chicken off on the hot side, I had some of the awesomest food I've ever tasted off the grill. Deep mahogany in color from a combination of deposited aromatic compounds and Maillard browning, smoky, sweet and hot, it was everything I knew jerk chicken could be.
Many home recipes treat jerk chicken as nothing more than smoked chicken with a very specific marinade and type of smoke, ignoring the fact that the chicken should be cooked directly on top of green, moist wood. I tried cooking one marinated chicken split in half side-by-side on the same grill. One was cooked on top of a bay leaf and pimento stick bed, while the other was placed directly on the grates—the method that every existing recipe I've seen advocated. The test showed that the process of steaming the chicken over moist green wood is vitally important to its final flavor.
So how to get that smoky jerk flavor without any actual pimento wood? After weeks of testing over a dozen different methods ranging from substituting various types of hardwood to replace the pimento (none came even close to the correct flavor), to a completely ludicrous process in which I slow-grilled chicken pieces then smoked them indoors in a wok, the best method turned out to be the simplest.
Just do what the Jamaicans do: when you can't find pimento, stick with bay. A combination of bay leaves and whole allspice berries soaked in water produced a steamy smoke that was very similar in aroma to the smoke produced by straight up pimento chips.
I knew that flavor had to be transferred to chicken through three distinct methods: direct transfer of aromatic oils, steam, and smoke.
For the direct transfer of flavor, I built chicken-shaped beds for my marinated birds out of soaked bay leaves, creating a solid layer over the cooler side of the grill. By limiting the amount of coals I used at the beginning, I was able to completely prevent the bay leaves from burning, allowing them to slowly transfer their flavor to the chicken. At the same time, they gradually released their moisture, their steam wafting around the chicken as it cooked.
For the smoke, I tried using a foil pouch stuffed with bay and allspice—a common technique for producing smoldering smoke from wood chips—but found that with bay leaves, throwing them directly onto the hot side of the grill and replacing them every 15 minutes or so produced the level of smoke I needed without actually creating the more acrid compounds that straight up burning wood will produce. The allspice berries produced just enough pimento wood flavor to make my ruse complete.
This stuff could've passed for a direct taste-alike to the real deal. It was like the oral equivalent of a Mission Impossible-style latex mask had been applied to my chickens, if you know what I mean.
All that was left was to finish it off by crisping the cooked birds over the hot side of the grill for the last few moments to create that charred, crisp finish.
It's a good thing it tasted so good, too, because I was this close to calling up my buddy and telling him that we'd need to embark on a new quest, this time to scour the back alleys behind every shady establishment in the country to relive that first glorious moment of discovery. And there's absolutely no way that quest could have had a happy ending.