Jamaican Jerk Chicken

This Jerk Chicken recipe is your favorite spicy, crisply barbecued chicken from Jamaica made at home with an easy marinade!   It’s famous for an addictively delicious reason – taste why!

This Jerk Chicken recipe is a juicy flavor bomb exploding with complex smoky, spicy yet sweet, fragrant, aromatic notes and tantalizing crispy charred crust that will transport you to Jamaica!  It’s outrageously flavorful thanks to marinating overnight in a dynamic jerk sauce made with potent chili peppers, aromatics and complex seasonings and can be cooked on the grill or in the oven.  Serve this Jamaican Jerk Chicken along with coconut rice, mango salsa or fresh pineapple and escape to the Caribbean year-round, without even leaving your kitchen!

I love marinated grilled chicken!  It makes for the easiest dinner with little prep – and zero cleanup.  Some of my favorite grilled chicken recipes include Greek Chicken, Pollo Asado Chili Lime Chicken, Cilantro Lime Chicken, Harissa Chicken, Chipotle Chicken, Teriyaki Chicken, Buffalo Chicken, Lemon Herb Chicken, Korean Chicken and now introducing Jerk Chicken!

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top view of Jamaican Jerk Chicken on a white platter

Jamaican jerk chicken RECIPE

I’m so excited to share globally famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken with you today!  You just can’t beat the burnished skin and crispy, blackened bits giving way to moist, tender, juicy chicken layered with unapologetically bold and dynamic flavor. The chicken is packed full of aromatics, sweet yet smoky notes, complex allspice, ginger, and thyme, all laced with fiery heat from Scotch bonnet peppers.  The combination of the marinade ingredients might seem odd, but expertly walks the tightrope of heat, dimension, and complexity to the reward of finger-licking, intoxicating chicken. 

What is almost as rewarding as its vibrant, sultry flavor, is how easy this Jerk Chicken recipe is to make!  It’s a marinate-and-cook dinner that literally takes 10 minutes to prep which makes it great for a summer cookout but easy enough for a weeknight dinner. Just prep the marinade the night before, add the chicken and let it bath in the aromatic splendor until you’re ready to throw it on the grill or pop it in the oven the next day. And bonus, the Jerk Chicken is not only extra flavorful from marinating overnight, but extra juicy as well. Every bite is guaranteed to be a succulent, flavorful dream hot off of the grill.

What is jerk chicken?

We’ve all heard the name “jerk chicken” and hopefully had the chance to sink our teeth into the tender, juicy, spicy charred meat.  But what exactly is it?   Jerk Chicken is a spicy, smoky grilled chicken, usually whole chicken, or bone-in chicken, famous from Jamaica but also common in the Cayman Islands and throughout the Caribbean.  It is juicy, tender, savory, smoky and slightly sweet with fiery heat with distinctive seasoning from the hot peppers, sweet allspice berries, thyme and ginger.

Jerk refers to a style of cooking in which the main ingredient (anything from chicken to beef to seafood to vegetables) is either coated in jerk seasonings or marinated with jerk seasonings.  The more traditional method is to marinate the chicken for as long as possible, to let the flavors really penetrate to create super moist chicken, then cook the chicken over the aromatic wood of the pimenta dioica, Jamaica’s allspice tree. 

What makes jerk chicken jerk? 

Authentic Jerk Chicken is not just smoky, spicy chicken coated in distinct seasonings, what sets it apart is the wood it is cooked over.  Authentic Jamaican Jerk Chicken is cooked over fresh pimento wood from the pimento tree (pimenta diocia), a tree native to the Caribbean, imbuing it with smoky undertones and enhancing the heat.  You may not think you are familiar with the pimento tree, but you have heard of its fruit – the allspice berry!  As commonly misunderstood, allspice comes from ground up allspice berries that resemble peppercorns, and not multiple berries.  The people of the Caribbean named them all spice because they thought they tasted like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper.

How is jerk chicken traditionally cooked?

In Jamaica, charcoals are laid in a pit under huge metal grates which are then topped with pimento wood.  The whole jerk seasoned chicken is placed directly on top of the pimento wood, then covered with big sheets of metal.  The chicken absorbs the fragrant oils and smoke from the pimento wood as it cooks slowly for hours, imbuing it with smoky, sweet, spicy, and floral flavor.

Most Jerk Chicken in Jamaica is no longer cooked in pits, but grilled over pimento wood charcoals in a steel drum known as a “jerk pan.”  It can be difficult to find pimento wood in the US, so often other fruit woods, which are similarly mild but pungent, are used. Feel free to experiment with fruit wood chips, such as apple, peach, cherry and more to see what works best for you. 

For everyday cooks without a charcoal grill, however, the allspice in the recipe serves as a suitable replacement for green pimento wood.  This makes it easy to also cook the chicken in a cast-iron skillet as well. 

Where is jerk chicken from?

The origins of Jerk Chicken are twofold.  The native people of the Caribbean, the Taíno people, are credited with creating the jerk method of cooking – using the aromatic pimento wood from local island trees to cook and smoke their food, imparting that authentic allspice flavor.  In fact, the name jerk, is the Spanish version of an Andean dialect word for dried meat, ch’arki, meaning dried strips of meat similar to the modern-day jerky.

The method of cooking Jerk Chicken in smoking pits and the distinctive seasonings of native Scotch bonnet peppers, sweet allspice berries, thyme and ginger, however, is credited to escaped African slaves in the 1600s, today referred to as Maroons.  Groups of African slaves had been brought to Jamaica by both the English and Spanish to work the sugar plantations.  When they escaped, they mingled with the Taínos, who taught them the jerk way of cooking. 

The Maroons took the jerk cooking technique one step further by digging pits to cook the wild caught boar in.  They would fill the pits with charcoal, add the meat, then bury them in order to hide the smoke from anyone who would bring them back into slavery.

Today, forms of jerk can be found all over the world, but is most popular where Caribbean descent exists, such as the Caribbean, Cayman Islands, United States, England, and the French Caribbean. And now you can bring it into your very own kitchen!

Jamaican Jerk Chicken on a white platter served with mango salsa

jerk chicken MARINADE

The Jerk Chicken Marinade (sometimes called Jerk Sauce) does all the heavy lifting.  It brings the depth of flavor and also tenderizes the chicken. While there are countless Jerk Chicken Marinade variations, you will always find Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice berries, thyme, green onions and fresh ginger. The rest of the ingredients in this recipe round out the flavor profile to create the best Jamaican Jerk Chicken in my opinion.  

The marinade ingredient list might look a bit lengthy, but each ingredient plays a key role and the ingredients only take a couple seconds to add to your food processor, so please don’t skip any!

  • Scotch bonnet pepper:  are fiery hot chili peppers with a fruity sweetness native to the Caribbean.  They were used in the first authentic Jerk Chicken recipes created thousands of years ago.  Scotch bonnet peppers are not for the faint of heart – they are seriously hot, about 40 times hotter than jalapeños.  You will use 1-3 Scotch bonnet peppers depending on your desired spice level.  To use the chili peppers, remove the stems by simply pulling it off and then add the whole peppers with the seeds to the food processor. 

What if I can’t find Scotch bonnet peppers?  Scotch bonnet peppers can be difficult to find in the United States, so you may substitute with its close cousin, the habanero pepper.  Habaneros are also fiery hot with fruity undertones but are missing the additional sweetness that Scotch bonnet peppers have.  Still, they make a good substitute because both chili peppers register about 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units.

  • Allspice berries:  are the fruit of the pimento tree used for grilling Jerk Chicken in Jamaica.  You can use crushed whole allspice berries or use store-bought ground allspice.  Allspice has a sweet, spicy, floral flavor, and tastes like a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper.
  • Green onions:  add a sweet, onion-y flavor.  Chop the green onions into large pieces so they fit into your food processor, about 2-inches long and use both the white and green parts.
  • Fresh ginger:  also flourishes in the Caribbean and is used in many regional specialties such as ginger beer and sorrel.  Peel the piece of ginger and slice it a few times to give it a head start before you pop it in the food processor.  
  • Thyme: is a key herb in Jamaican Jerk chicken with its strong herbal flavor with sharp grass, wood, and floral notes.  Fresh is preferable, but you may also use dried.
  • Garlic:  adds the pungent garlicy goodness!  Peel the cloves and add them whole to the food processor.
  • Cinnamon:  strong, warm and sweetly pungent.
  • Ground nutmeg: boasts a woody, earthy, nutty sweetness with hints of clove. 
  • Salt and pepper:  rounds out the flavor profile.  It might seem like a lot of salt, but it’s a lot of chicken!
  • Soy sauce:  tenderizes the chicken and infuses it with rich flavor.  Use reduced sodium soy sauce so your chicken won’t be too salty. 
  • Lime juice:  adds a hint of citrus to compliment the earthy seasonings.  Use freshly squeezed or 100% lime juice.
  • Brown sugar:  won’t make your chicken taste sweet with all that heat, but balances the soy and lime juice.

POSSIBLE RECIPE VARIATIONS

  • Make it spicy by adding up to 3 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers.
  • Play with the seasoning ratios to mix up the flavor profile.
  • Add cilantro: for more of a zesty, citrusy punch. 
  • Swap the citrus:  add some pineapple juice or orange juice in place of the lime juice.

WHAT CHICKEN IS BEST FOR jerk chicken?

Jerk Chicken is often made with a whole chicken or dark cuts of meat such as the legs quarters thighs, and wings. They are dark cuts of meat which means they are richer tasting, inherently juicier and the bone keeps them extra tender.  Most importantly in this recipe, the richer flavor is important to stand up against the bold marinade. I suggest bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks for this recipe because they cook in the same amount, but you may use whatever cut of chicken you like.  

CAN I USE CHICKEN BREASTS?

Yes, technically you can make Jamaican Jerk Chicken using chicken breasts, but there is a reason Jerk Chicken is made with dark meat.  It’s more flavorful, tender and can be marinated for longer, resulting in a superior end result.  You also won’t achieve that signature charred crust and blackened crispy bits using chicken breasts.  The milder chicken breast meat also doesn’t compliment the dynamic marinade as well.

If you choose to use chicken breasts, take care to pound the breasts to an even thickness before marinating.  Only marinade chicken breasts for up to 12 hours because the meat is more likely to break down and become mushy if over-marinated.

Also note, you don’t want to overcook chicken breasts or they won’t be as juicy.  Chicken breasts should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, 10 degrees less than the ideal 175 degrees F for darker cuts of meat.

side view of how to serve Jamaican Jerk Chicken served with coconut rice and mango salsa

HOW SPICY IS jerk chicken?

Jerk Chicken is supposed to be spicy – it’s part of what makes jerk chicken jerk!  Here’s the breakdown: 

  • 1 Scotch Bonnet Pepper= medium
  • 2 Scotch Bonnet Peppers= medium-hot
  • 3 Scotch Bonnet Peppers= hot

That being said, you can make the same Jerk Chicken Marinade multiple times with the same number of peppers and it will vary in heat every time. This is because the peppers range in heat from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU – no two peppers are the same!  

If you are very sensitive to heat, you can swap the Scotch bonnet peppers/habaneros for jalapenos which, as mentioned earlier, are 40x less spicy or remove the seeds from the chili peppers. 

HOW TO MAKE jerk chicken

This Jerk Chicken recipe is super easy to make – just marinate and cook! Here’s how (full recipe measurement are in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):

STEP 1: MARINATE CHICKEN

Add the Scotch bonnet chili peppers (or easier to find habanero chili peppers) green onions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, thyme, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper to a food process and process until smooth.   Pour the marinade over the chicken in a resealable bag.

Marinate the chicken for 4 hours or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator (the longer the better!).

a collage showing how to make Jerk Chicken Recipe by making jerk sauce by adding Scotch Bonnet peppers, green onions, ginger, garlic, thyme, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon to a food processor and processing until smooth
showing how to make Jerk Chicken Recipe by adding marinade and chicken to a ziploc bag and turning to coat the chicken in the marinade

STEP 2:  BRING CHICKEN TO ROOM TEMPERATURE

When read to grill or roast, let the chicken sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. You should never grill chicken or any protein straight out of the refrigerator.  Room temperature protein is juicier and cooks more evenly.

Room temperature Jerk Chicken will cook more quickly because it starts cooking at a higher temperature which means the outside is less likely to overcook and there is less time for moisture to be released while cooking.  The chicken also cooks more evenly and you aren’t left with an overcooked exterior and raw interior. Lastly, bringing the chicken to room temperature relaxes the cold muscle fibers so they release natural moisture which is then reabsorbed into the muscle for juicier results (otherwise the moisture stays trapped in the fibers).

STEP 3:  HEAT GRILL

Heat the grill with the lid closed cranked to the maximum high temperature so it can achieve temperature more quickly and deliver a beautiful sear; plan on 10-15 minutes.  Once the grill is hot, adjust the temperature as needed. 

Don’t add the chicken until the grill is hot or it won’t sear as beautifully.  A hot grill also helps the chicken easily release from the grill. Also, don’t grease the grill until ready to add the chicken or some of the oil will burn off.

STEP 3:  CLEAN GRILL

Once the grill is fully heated, clean it thoroughly with a wire grill brush to remove any residue.  A clean grill ensures direct contact with the heat to create a beautiful sear and grill marks and helps prevent sticking. 

STEP 4: GREASE GRILL

Generously grease the CLEAN grill with a wad of oiled paper towels using tongs just before adding the chicken.  NEVER use spray oils once the grill is on. Only use vegetable oil or another high smoking point oil. Don’t use olive because it has a lower smoking point (meaning it starts to smoke and break down at a lower temperature) and will not only smoke you out but leave an unpleasant taste on your food as it breaks down under the heat.

STEP 5: COOK jerk chicken

Add the bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks, cover and grill for 5-7 minutes per side or until the thickest part of the chicken registers 175°F on an instant-read meat thermometer.  The grilling time will depend on how thick your chicken is and actual heat of your grill.  Resist the urge to flip the chicken more than once.  The chicken needs constant direct heat to develop the intensely flavored, caramelized crust.  If you keep rotating the chicken, it will brown but won’t char.

If using a different cut of chicken, the temperature, method (lid open/closed) and duration will vary. I’ve included cooking times for different cuts of chicken in the recipe card.

up close top view of Jamaican Jerk Chicken recipe garnished with cilantro

CAN I COOK jerk chicken IN THE OVEN?

Absolutely!  I personally prefer the charred crust and smoky grilled flavor, but the oven method works great for year-round cooking. If you choose to cook the chicken in the oven, try adding 2 teaspoons mesquite liquid smoke to the marinade.

To cook Jerk Chicken in the oven using chicken breasts or bone-in chicken thighs and bone-in drumsticks:

  • Preheat oven and prepare baking sheet: preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup and spray with non-stick cooking spray.
  • Arrange marinated chicken on sheet: remove chicken from marinade and add to the baking sheet in a single layer so the pieces aren’t touching. 
  • Bake then broil:  bake in preheated oven until cooked through, about 25 – 35 minutes, or until an internal temperature reaches 175 degrees F thighs and drumsticks and 165 degrees F for chicken breasts.  Broil the chicken the last few minutes for an extra burnished finish.

HOW DO I KNOW WHEN MY CHICKEN IS DONE?

Always use a meat thermometer to check for doneness so you don’t undercook or overcook your chicken.  A meat thermometer means perfectly cooked, tender, juicy chicken ever time. Chicken thighs should be cooked to 175 degrees F and chicken breasts should be cooked to 165 degrees.

Dark meat such has chicken thighs, chicken drumsticks and leg quarters (essentially everything but chicken breasts) are safe to eat when cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, but are more tender when cooked to 175 degrees. Cooking dark meat to only 165 F will yield chewy, rubbery meat because it contains more connective tissue. Cooking it to 175 F, will yield tender, juicy meat as the collagen melts at this higher temperature and turns to gelatin.

Chicken breasts are safe to eat when cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.  I don’t recommend cooking them a second longer because the light meat is temperamental and can easily dry out if overcooked.

expert TIPS FOR MAKING jerk chicken recipe

This Jerk Chicken recipe is super simple to make. Here is a summary of expert tips and tricks for the BEST Jerk Chicken every time:

  • Use fresh ingredients for the best flavor. Save the garlic powder, ginger powder and bottled lime juice for another time.  The beauty of Jerk Chicken is that’s a simple-marinate-and-cook recipe so it’s important to use quality, fresh ingredients.
  • Adjust the heat level.  Plan on 1 Scotch bonnet pepper for medium heat and up to 3 for hot.  You can also remove the seeds (don’t touch your eyes!) for less spicy chicken because the seeds pack the most heat, or you may substitute with jalapeno peppers.
  • Plan to marinate the chicken overnight.  The most flavorful chicken is dark meat marinated for up to 24 hours.  That being said, don’t marinate chicken breasts longer than 12 hours.
  • Use dark meat.  Skip the chicken breasts and use rich, juicy chicken thighs and/or drumsticks which can stand up to the robust marinade.
  • Don’t like chicken skin?  Remove it!  I always remove the chicken skin before I marinate chicken.  This creates extra flavorful chicken because the marinade can really penetrate the meat and I personally like the taste better.  At the end of the day, it’s totally your call.
  • Don’t overcook the chicken!  Overcooked chicken is dry chicken.  Every grill cooks a little differently, so I highly recommend investing in a meat thermometer, otherwise there is no accurate way to check and see when your chicken is cooked without slicing it open and loosing valuable juices.  You can pick up an inexpensive instant read thermometer at any grocery store or Amazon, or I’m obsessed with my digital meat probe thermometer.  You stick the probe in the chicken (or any protein) and can set an alert for the temperature, walk away and it will beep when ready!  You’ll never overcook chicken again!
  • Let the chicken rest after cooking.  After chicken is finished cooking, transfer it to a cutting board and let rest 5-10 minutes before biting into it, so the meat has time to reabsorb the juices that have pushed towards the outside of the chicken. If you cut into the Jerk Chicken immediately after cooking, valuable, moisture-giving juices will run out.
  • Prep the grill for that caramelized crust.  Clean the grill very well before cooking for beautiful grill marks and to prevent sticking. Don’t add the chicken until the grill is hot to achieve a beautiful sear, then only flip/touch your chicken once for the perfect caramelized crust.
a platter of Jamaican Jerk Chicken garnished with cilantro and served with mango salsa

WHAT SHOULD I SERVE WITH Jamaican Jerk chicken?

This Jerk Chicken recipe is tasty with rice to offer a neutral textural component to balance the heat, sweet tropical fruit such as pineapple or mangos and green salad.  Here are some additional tasty options:

Sides To Serve With Jerk Chicken

top view of coconut rice in a stainless steel skillet
up close of two servings spoons scooping up mango salsa recipe
Sweet and smoky Grilled Pineapple salsa with not only grilled pineapple but GRILLED red bell peppers, red onions AND jalapeno! sweet and smoky and possibly the best salsa E-V-E-R alone, with chips, tacos or on fish/chicken. #pineapple #salsa #pineapplesalsa #grill
top view of easy Pina Colada Fruit Salad with pineapple, coconut, mandarin oranges, strawberries and blueberries in a white bowl
combining best broccoli salad in a wood bowl with wood tongs with creamy dressing
Top view of Creamy Pasta Salad with Peas and Bacon with a wood serving spoon

WHAT ELSE CAN I MAKE WITH JErk chicken leftovers?

Jerk Chicken is fabulous served with simple sides or is wonderfully versatile and can be served in wraps, salads, etc.  Here are just a few ideas:  

  • Jerk Chicken Salad.  Follow my instructions for my Caribbean Shrimp and Avocado Salad (AMAZING!) and swap the shrimp for the chicken or go super simple and add the chicken to some greens along with some tropical fruit and cashews.   
  • Jerk Chicken Tacos or Lettuce Wraps.  Pile Jerk Chicken in flour tortillas or bib lettuce and top with mango salsa, pineapple salsa, corn salsa, or black bean and corn salsa and other favorite toppings such as roasted sweet potatoes, pickled red onions and lettuce or cabbage. Finish with a drizzle of avocado crema or a dollop of guacamole.  
  • Jerk Chicken Pasta.  Add Jerk Chicken to any of your favorite creamy pastas such as Fettuccine AlfredoSun-Dried Tomato Fettuccine,  Cacio e Pepe, Creamy Mushroom PastaPepper Jack Mac and Cheese or Homemade Mac and Cheese.  You can also go low carb and serve the chicken with zoodles or spaghetti squash.
  • Jerk Chicken Mac and Cheese.  Stir the chopped chicken into your favorite Mac and Cheese recipe at the end of cooking.
  • Jerk Chicken Baked Potatoes: poke holes in washed, dried potatoes. Place on a foil lined baking sheet and lightly brush with oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake for 1 hour or until potatoes are tender and the skin is crispy.  Slice open the potatoes, top with chopped chicken and cheese then place back in the oven for 5 minutes or until the cheese melts. Top with sour cream, green onions, etc.
  • Jerk Chicken Quesadillas.  Sandwich chicken, Monterrey Jack Cheese, black beans and cilantro in between two flour tortillas and toast in a skillet to golden, cheesy perfection. Serve with pineapple salsa or mango salsa, pico de gallo, salsa, chopped avocados, guacamole and/or crema.
  • Jerk Chicken Burritos. Layer a burrito size tortilla with coconut rice, cilantro lime rice or pineapple rice, black or pinto beans, cheese, chicken, guacamole, sour cream and lettuce.  Serve with additional sour cream and pineapple salsa or mango salsa.
  • Jerk Chicken Burrito Bowls. Layer coconut rice, cilantro lime rice or pineapple rice with black beans, corn, chicken, chopped lettuce or slaw, pineapple or mango salsa and your favorite creamy topping such as sour cream/Greek yogurt or I highly recommend either Tomatillo Avocado Ranch or Cilantro Lime Dressing.
  • Jerk Chicken Grain Bowls. Layer your favorite rice or grains in a bowl with your favorite veggies. The veggies can be roasted/cooked like roasted broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or butternut squash, or raw such as fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced radishes, sprouts, avocados etc. or pickled like pickled jalapenos, carrots, etc. or a combo of all three!  You can also top with a fried or soft-boiled egg. Finish it all off with pineapple or mango salsa and your favorite creamy topping such as Tomatillo Avocado Ranch or Cilantro Lime Dressing.
  • Jerk Chicken Nachos.  Pile thick restaurant style tortilla chips with cheese and beans and bake.  Top with chicken and toppings such as jalapenos, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and pineapple or mango salsa.
  • Taquitos.  You can make traditional taquitos with chicken and cheese or make Hawaiian style taquitos like in my VERY FIRST recipe post ever (I give you permission to make fun of the photos). Add some barbecue sauce, pineapple and cheese, roll and bake until crispy.
top view of Jamaican Jerk Chicken on a white platter

CAN I FREEZE jamaican jerk chicken?

Yes!  You can freeze the uncooked marinating chicken or cooked chicken.

  • To freeze chicken in marinade:  add the chicken to the marinade and freeze for up to 3 months.  When you’re ready to use, the chicken will marinate as you thaw the chicken in the refrigerator.
  • To freeze cooked chicken:  let chicken cool completely then transfer it to an airtight container or plastic freezer bag and squeeze out any excess air. Freeze for 2 to 3 months.
  • To thaw:  let the chicken thaw in the refrigerator overnight.  You can also thaw in the microwave but take care to thaw slowly using the defrost setting so your chicken doesn’t become rubbery.  Use any of the below methods to reheat.

HOW TO STORE AND REHEAT jerk chicken

  • Storage: store cooked chicken in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
  • Skillet:  reheat in a skillet over medium low heat until warmed through, adding a splash of water for added moisture.
  • Microwave:  reheat in the microwave at 30 second intervals, taking care not to overcook.
  • Oven:  reheat in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F or just until warmed through.

Jerk Chicken Facts

Why do they call it Jerk Chicken?

The indigenous people of Jamaica, the Taino, developed the jerk method of cooking by smoking food over the wood of the allspice tree (green wood).  This method was later adapted by Maroons, African slaves, who added the distinctive flavorings of Scotch bonnet peppers, ginger and thyme.  The word jerk refers to the jerk cooking method of smoking, stemming from the Spanish charqui, meaning dried strips of meat similar to the modern-day jerky.

Is Jerk Chicken spicy?

Yes, Jerk Chicken is spicy!  It is seasoned with Scotch bonnet peppers which are seriously hot peppers. They measure 100,000-350,000 Scottsville Heat Unites (SHU) compared to the jalapeno at 2500 to 8,000 SHU.  If making your own Jerk chicken recipe, you can reduce the number of peppers to reduce the heat. 

What flavor is Jerk Chicken?

Jamaican Jerk Chicken boasts a distinctive flavor profile characterized by spices native to the island of Jamaica. It is seasoned with spicy, Scotch bonnet chiles (or easier to find habanero chilies) and aromatic, complex, sweet yet smoky, earthy notes from allspice, thyme, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Is Jerk Chicken healthy?

Chicken is a lean protein and one of the healthiest protein options.  It can be part of a balanced diet along with nutritious vegetables and complex carbohydrates. You can make the Jerk Chicken recipe even healthier by use chicken breasts.  The fact that the chicken is grilled rather than cooked in butter of oil also makes it a smarter choice.  

Is Jerk Chicken white or dark meat?

Authentic Jerk Chicken is made of the whole chicken. When just pieces of the chicken are cooked, it is usually dark meat so the richer meat can stand up against the pungent spices.

What is Caribbean jerk sauce made of?

Jerk marinade or sauce is used to season the meats. It consists of Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, green onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, thyme, soy sauce, and brown sugar.  All of the ingredients should be easy to find at your local grocery store except perhaps Scotch bonnet peppers, in which case you may substitute habanero chili peppers. 

Can I use powders in this Jerk Chicken recipe?

For the best tasting Jamaican Jerk Chicken, use only fresh ingredients.  That being said, if you have to use powders/dried ingredients, use ⅓ the number of fresh garlic, ginger and thyme.

How long do I marinate Jerk Chicken thighs?

For maximum benefit, marinate the chicken thighs for at least 4 hours, up to 24 hours.  Don’t marinate longer than that because the acid in the marinade can break down the muscle fibers too much and make your jerk chicken mushy.

How long do I marinate Jerk Chicken breasts?

Chicken breast meat is more delicate and is more prone to become mushy, so only marinate for up to 12 hours.

Should you poke holes in Jerk Chicken before marinating?

No, you should NOT poke holes in the chicken before marinating. This is an old wives’ tale and actually drains out the valuable juices while the chicken cooks and will result in less juicy chicken.  You can cut slits in thick pieces of chicken like chicken legs to reach deeper into the protein, but never holes.

Can you freeze Jerk Chicken in the marinade?

Yes!  If you can’t get to cooking your Jamaican Jerk chicken within 12 hours, just pop it in the freezer – another perk of using sealable plastic bags. When it’s time to cook, just thaw and cook!

top view of Jamaican Jerk Chicken served with mango salsa, coconut rice and sweet potatoes
top view of Jamaican Jerk Chicken on a white platter

Jerk Chicken

This Jerk Chicken recipe is your favorite spicy, crisply barbecued chicken from Jamaica made at home with an easy marinade!   It’s famous for an addictively delicious reason – taste why! This Jerk chicken is a juicy flavor bomb exploding with complex smoky, spicy yet sweet, fragrant, aromatic notes and tantalizing crispy charred crust.  It’s outrageously flavorful thanks to marinating overnight in a dynamic jerk sauce made with potent chili peppers, aromatics and complex seasonings and can be cooked on the grill or in the oven.  Serve this Jamaican Jerk Chicken along with coconut rice, mango salsa or pineapple salsa, and escape to the Caribbean year-round, without even leaving your kitchen!
Servings: 10 servings
Prep Time: 6 hours
Cook Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

Chicken

  • 10-12 bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks (about 3 lbs), trimmed of excess fat and skin (I remove all the skin)

Jerk Chicken Marinade

  • 1 red onion, peeled, quartered
  • 1 bunch green onions, trimmed, cut into chunks
  • 5 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2-3 Scotch bonnet chili peppers or habanero chili peppers, with seeds, stems removed**
  • 1 ½ – inch piece ginger, peeled, sliced
  • 1/3 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 1 tablespoon allspice berries coarsely ground or 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tsp EACH pepper, onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp EACH ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg

Instructions

MARINATE CHICKEN

  • Add all of the Jerk Chicken Marinade ingredients to a food processor and pulse, then process until mostly smooth. Pour over chicken in a large resealable plastic bag.
  • Marinate chicken in the refrigerator 4 to 24 hours. (If using chicken breasts, only marinate up to 12 hours or else it can become mushy.) Let chicken sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes before cooking.

HOW TO COOK CHICKEN ON THE GRILL

  • Note: These instructions are for bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks – see below for different cuts of chicken. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat, 425-450°F, clean and grease grates with vegetable oil.
  • Grill chicken skin side down first (if leaving on). Grill for 5-7 minutes per side with the lid CLOSED, or until chicken is cooked through and an internal temperature reaches 175 degrees F on an instant read thermometer. Adjust the temperature if the chicken is browning too quickly. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before serving.

HOW TO COOK CHICKEN IN THE OVEN

  • If you choose to cook the chicken in the oven, consider adding 2 teaspoons mesquite liquid smoke to the marinade for that smoky flavor.
  • Line a large baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Line the chicken in a single layer so the pieces aren't touching. Bake at 400 degrees F for 35-45 minutes (depending on thickness), until the internal temperature reaches 175 degrees F.

Notes

Tips and Tricks

  • Scotch bonnet peppers: are fiery hot chili peppers with a fruity sweetness native to the Caribbean.  Scotch bonnet peppers can be difficult to find in the United States, so you may substitute with its close cousin, the habanero pepper with similar heat.  You will use 1-3  peppers depending on your desired spice level.  To use the chili peppers, remove the stems by simply pulling it off and then add the whole peppers with the seeds to the food processor. 
  • Adjust the heat level:  plan on 1 Scotch bonnet pepper for medium heat, 2 for medium-hot and 3 for hot.  You can also remove the seeds (don’t touch your eyes!) for less spicy chicken because the seeds pack the most heat, or you may substitute with jalapeno peppers which are 40X less spicy.  If you are making the chicken less spicy, reduce the brown sugar but 1 tablespoon.
  • Plan to marinate the chicken overnight: the most flavorful chicken is dark meat marinated for up to 24 hours.  That being said, don’t marinate chicken breasts longer than 12 hours.
  • Chicken breasts: there is a reason Jerk Chicken is made with dark meat.  It’s more flavorful, tender, the richer meat can stand up against the pungent spices and can be marinated for longer, resulting in a superior end result.  You also won’t achieve that signature charred crust and blackened crispy bits using chicken breasts.  If you choose to use chicken breasts, take care to pound the breasts to an even thickness before marinating.  Only marinade chicken breasts for up to 12 hours because the meat is more likely to break down and become mushy if over-marinated.
  • Don’t like chicken skin?  Remove it!  I always remove the chicken skin before I marinate chicken.  This creates extra flavorful chicken because the marinade can really penetrate the meat and I personally like the taste better.  At the end of the day, it’s totally your call.

HOW LONG TO GRILL CUTS OF jerk chicken

With each cut of chicken, take care to not overcook but grill to the specified temperature, light meat to 165 degrees F and dark meat to 175-180 degrees F.

BONELESS CHICKEN BREASTS

  • Pound chicken breasts to an even thickness before marinating.
  • Preheat grill to 400-425°F, clean and grease grates.
  • Grill chicken undisturbed for 5-7 minutes per side, or until chicken is cooked through (an inserted thermometer should reach 165 degrees F).

BONELESS SKINLESS CHICKEN THIGHS

  • Preheat grill to 400-450°F, clean and grease grates.
  • Grill chicken undisturbed for 5-7 minutes per side, or until chicken is cooked through (an inserted thermometer should reach 175 degrees F).

CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS

  • Preheat grill to high heat, clean and grease grates.
  • Add chicken to the hot grill and sear for 5 minutes. Flip chicken over and sear 5 minutes.
  • COVER and reduce heat to low so that the heat stays around 350 degrees F when the lid is closed. Grill with the lid closed for 12 minutes. Flip chicken over, cover and grill and additional 12 minutes. Check chicken temperature. It should register 175 degrees F. If chicken is not cooked to this temperature yet, flip and repeat steps until chicken is fully cooked through.

HOW TO STORE AND REHEAT

  • To store: store cooked chicken in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
  • To freeze chicken in marinade:  add the chicken to the marinade and freeze for up to 3 months.  When you’re ready to use, the chicken will marinate as you thaw the chicken in the refrigerator.
  • To freeze cooked chicken:  let chicken cool completely then transfer it to an airtight container or plastic freezer bag and squeeze out any excess air. Freeze for 2 to 3 months.  Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
  • To reheat in the skillet:  reheat in a skillet over medium low heat until warmed through, adding a splash of water for added moisture.
  • To reheat in the microwave:  reheat in the microwave at 30 second intervals, taking care not to overcook.
  • To reheat in the oven:  reheat in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees F or just until warmed through.

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8 Comments

  1. Stephanie says

    I was cracking up this morning when you posted Jerk Chicken because God as my witness I searched your site 2 days ago to see if you had a Jerk marinade, Saw only your jerk shrimp and was figuring out how to make that work for chicken. Thank you for posting an actual jerk chicken that I needed today! You know I’m a CC super fan, so this SoCal ex-pat now living in Montana has family coming to visit this week so my whole menu is around your recipes that are my favs. Cajun tri-tip w/apricot glaze, pork tenderloin w/ blackberry hoisin sauce, barbacoa enchiladas w/ your homemade enchilada sauce to name a few. I was looking for a jerk chicken to lighten it up with your coconut rice and this recipe is perfect, just perfect timing. Can’t wait to make this!

    • Jen says

      We really are foodie kindred spirits, I’m so glad this recipe showed up right in time! I love that you and your family are CC fans – your comments always brighten my day 🙂 It sounds like your company will be enjoying a feast! Have tons of fun and enjoy all the good eats!

  2. Robin Williamson says

    It looks like you have red onion in your cuisinart for the marinade, but there is no red onion listed on the ingredients list. Should there be?

    • Jen says

      Thanks so much for catching that! Yes, there should be one red onion in the marinade, just fixed the recipe. Enjoy!

  3. Stephanie says

    THIS jerk chicken recipe is incredible and served along side your coconut rice made for an memorable dinner for our out of town guests. The tropical flavors and spices are amazing together. The chicken was moist and grilled over charcoal was perfect. We used all boneless, skinless chicken thighs, I did however use 2 jalapeños in the marinade because I was nervous about the spicy heat for this kids. 2 jalapeños gave off like zero heat, so next time I will go with one habanero instead to kick it up a notch. Thanks Jen for sharing another fabulous recipe with all of us followers.

    • Jen says

      You’re so welcome Stephanie! I’m so pleased this jerk chicken was enjoyed by all! It is surprising how much spice you need to really taste the heat in this recipe. I think you’ll love it even more next time with the habanero. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Teija says

    Just finished up having this for supper. AMAZING – as always We absolutely loved this. I made your coconut rice and pineapple salsa to mix all together and it was delicious!! I am sharing the recipe with several friends and family and will be making this again for sure!! Thanks for another wonderful meal ❤️

    • Jen says

      Your entire meal sounds fabulous – love all those flavors together! I’m so pleased it was a hit and worthy to share with friends and family!