Friday, February 10, 2012

Ingredient of the Day: Jamaican Jerk Spice

If you fall in love with a jerk, don't just reject him. He may reveal the jerk part of you which is concealed. – Toba Beta

I'm sure this gentleman is not a jerk at all. Photo: Smile My Day, Flickr ccl
Feel like a taste of the Caribbean? Try using Jamaican spice in your cooking.

Photo: Freecandy13, Flickr ccl
Jerk is both a spice mix and a meat preparation technique. In prep it is a process where meat is dry-rubbed or marinated with a very hot spice mixture and then slow smoked and/or air dried. 

To do jerk properly you need to start with jerk spice seasoning, of course.

Jerk seasoning – a fiery mixture – is usually used on pork and chicken, but is can also be used on other meats, fish, shellfish and even tofu. It can also be used with fruit to great effect.

Jerk seasoning gets its flavour from two main ingredients: the first is allspice and the second is Scotch Bonnet pepper. Other commonly included ingredients are thyme, garlic, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. 

Photo: artizone, Flickr ccl
It is common to substitute cayenne for the Scotch Bonnets since they’re (literally) a pain to deal with and are quite uncommon to find in dried form. 

Scotch Bonnets are among the hottest of all peppers, rating between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units. Jalapenos, in comparison, rate 2,500 to 8,000. So Scotch Bonnets hot, hot hot. 

I actually drove myself out of my kitchen one day while sautéing cut Scotch Bonnet in a frying pan. The fumes actually took my breath away. I had to go outside.

Good jerk seasoning is available in most groceries, but it’s easy to make at home. This is advantageous for those who may want to adjust the heat to their own taste – up or down.

Photo: Manne, Flickr ccl
Today’s word “jerk” comes from the South American Quechua word charqui, meaning “dried meat.” Jerking was an effective way to preserve meat in tropical locales. 

Over time the seasoning mix became more or less standardized. Of course jerk seasoning can vary greatly just by changing or adding an ingredient or quantity.

Many different regional types of jerk seasoning exist, but most people think of Jamaican jerk only. Jamaican is characterized by allspice and thyme. 

In traditional jerk, the jerk spice is rubbed onto meat and allowed to cure before it is slow smoked and wind dried. The end result is spicy dried meat. This meat can be stored for long periods of time.

Today jerk is popular as a barbecue rub and sometimes combined with liquids for a marinade or "wet" cooking spice. Wood chips are also used for smokiness.

My version is below. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to dabble with the amount of cayenne you use.

These are allspice berries. Photo: Food Stories, Flickr ccl
Jamaican Jerk Spice
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp dried thyme
1-1/2 tsp cayenne powder*
1-1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1-1/2 tsp allspice, ground
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika, smoked if possible
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg, ground
1/2 tsp cloves, ground

Mix all the ingredients and store in a tightly sealed jar. It is at its best for about 4-6 weeks.

Rub (or sprinkle) directly on meat before grilling. If using as a wet rub, combine with some oil and water, or try fruit juice such as pineapple.

* This amount of cayenne makes a fairly mild Jerk mix. If you're after some real heat, double it to 3 tsp, or maybe even 1 tbsp.

Jerk spice on avocado. Photo: Choking Sun, Flickr ccl

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