Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

By Our Chef, Phillip Schaaf

Cooking outside of the comfort zone is essential to growth in the kitchen. It is common to get mired down in the same flavor profiles and techniques, mostly because it is easy to repeat recipes that we know. Maybe time constraints keep us from attempting new things, or maybe it’s the fear of the dish becoming a complete failure. It’s always possible that dinner becomes a disaster. When risk taking, always be prepared to order a pizza, but don’t hold back from trying out new spices or ingredients. Pick a popular dish from a different cuisine each month. Doing so will expand your pantry and your knowledge of flavor. You might find yourself being able to discern an Indian curry from a Thai curry or pinpointing a single ingredient from a Mexican mole sauce. Either way, the journey will liven up your dinner table and broaden your palette.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken is a dish that delivers on many different levels. It’s savory with a hint of sweetness. It is citrusy and sour with as much or as little spice as you’d like. A traditional jerk marinade derives its heat from habanero or scotch bonnet peppers. Both of these peppers have a high amount of heat, but are also very fruity and delicious. I love hot peppers. I find them to be some of the most flavorful fruits available, but that flavor comes with a price. Go easy your first time around and then raise the Scoville unit a little bit each time. Start with jalapeño and Serrano peppers; you’ll soon be looking for Carolina Reapers at your local farmer’s market.

The predominant flavors of the jerk marinade come from allspice berries and hot peppers, most traditionally the scotch bonnet. The longer the meat sits in the marinade, the more pronounced and nuanced the flavor becomes. Most traditional jerk recipes call for slow smoking the meat with wood from pimento trees, which will be a bit difficult and expensive to source. The closest we can cheaply get is to cook over semi direct heat on a charcoal grill, adding soaked wood chips to the coals periodically to give a more smoky flavor. Semi-direct heat means that the coals are pushed to one side of the grill and the meat is placed to just overlap the middle, resulting in a charred and crispy skin. 

How to Spatchcock

For this recipe, I cooked a whole spatchcocked chicken. To spatchcock a chicken means to butterfly the whole bird. It’s very easy to do. Just take a pair of good kitchen shears and cut through the rib bones right next to the bird’s backbone, exposing the cavity. Prepare the bird in this manor before marinating in order for the flavors to seep through to all of the meat easily. 

Why Spatchcock?

Spatchcocking the bird can reduce the cook times and even out the cooking overall, resulting in a juicier chicken through and through. You can expect a whole smoked chicken to take about an hour to cook through, but definitely use a thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. You want the meat to reach 165° internally. Check the breast and the thigh. With semi-direct heat method, it is best to turn the chicken every 15-20 minutes so that the skin is nice and charred but not burnt. You can always finish with direct heat over the coals to crisp up the chicken before resting and carving. Serve it up alongside some grilled pineapple and spicy Caribbean rice and peas with close friends and cold beverages.

What You'll Need 

One spatchcocked chicken

6 hot peppers, scotch bonnet, habanero or otherwise*

5 cloves garlic, peeled

4 scallions, root ends removed

1 knob of ginger, peeled and chopped, about 2 inches

1 shallot, peeled and halved

1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves

2 T allspice berries

2 T black peppercorn

1 T kosher salt

2 T dark brown sugar or molasses

2 T soy sauce

Juice and zest of 3 limes

Juice and zest of 1 orange

2 T cider or rice vinegar

1/4 C vegetable oil

The Recipe 

  1. Spatchcock the chicken by cutting down alongside the backbone, opening the cavity.

  2. Combine all other ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.

  3. Cover the chicken in the paste and allow to sit for at least 24 hours, and up to three days.

  4. Prepare a charcoal grill for semi-direct heat. Push all charcoal to one side and place the meat near the middle breast side down, with most of the chicken away from the coals.

  5. Cook covered on the grill for about twenty minutes and then rotate a half turn.

  6. Cook another 20 minutes and then flip over.

  7. Cook 20 minutes longer, covered all the while, and then check the internal temperature. If the chicken needs more time, cook with the breast up so the skin will not burn. If needed, the chicken can finish directly over the coals for a few minutes to crisp up the skin. 

*Hot peppers are hot. It is imperative to wash all surfaces, hands, knives, etc after processing hot peppers. The capsaicin oils spread easily, which can lead to many different unfortunate scenarios. Be careful and avoid contact with eyes and skin. It will cause irritation for a short but stirring period of time.