Jerk Chicken Tacos

Jerk Chicken Tacos: Elevate Your Weeknight Dinner Game

Jerk Chicken Tacos are the epitome of fusion cuisine; boneless chicken marinated in Jamaican jerk seasoning and olive oil, then grilled to perfection and paired with a vibrant pineapple salsa in corn tortillas for the perfect sweet and spicy taco combo.

I experienced authentic Jerk chicken several years ago while on vacation in the Caribbean, and it’s one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever had. I’ve been intrigued and have tried to recreate it since, but there seems to be something more to it than just following a recipe.

Few dishes can pack a punch quite like Jerk Chicken Tacos. This fusion of Caribbean heat and Mexican flair is a dream for spice lovers. The heat can definitely be controlled, but we’ll get to that later.

Jerk Chicken Tacos

Why You Will Love Jerk Chicken Tacos

Versatility – These Jerk Chicken Tacos are customizable and can easily adapt to/with other flavors, like changing up the slaw to add celery strips and blue cheese (minus the pineapple) for more of a Buffalo type jerk style taco. You can add or remove as much as you want, and this is especially important for leftovers.

The History of Jerk Chicken Tacos

First, let’s talk about the history a bit.

Jamaican jerk is actually a form of cooking, as well as a seasoning, that originated with freed slaves (known as the Maroons) who fled to the mountains of Jamaica. They used the herbs and spices they had available to them on the island, which were also used to preserve meats.

The allspice berries, which are from the pimento bush, were used to mimic the smoky flavor of pimento wood that was historically used to cook jerk meats deep in the ground. The Jamaican Maroons, who were once enslaved thanks to Spain, found freedom in the Jamaican mountains.

The Maroons used pimento wood to cook the jerk meat underground, otherwise smoke would give their location away. They made smokeless pits for wild boar meat that was seasoned with pimento berries, salt and bird peppers and roasted over dying embers.

The meat cooked with jerk seasoning presently is usually chicken or pork, and the spicy jerk rub or marinade is typically made with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, with allspice being the main key ingredient.  Over the years the term “jerk” has acquired multiple meanings that include flavor, marinade, cooking technique, and even origin of ingredients

The word “jerk” itself is said to have originated from the Spanish word “charqui,” which means dried meat, similar to the concept of jerky.

Jerk Chicken Tacos

The scotch bonnet pepper is largely responsible for the heat in Caribbean jerk seasoning, although the basic recipe has been modified and has evolved over time.

There are four elements of the jerk seasoning that Jamaicans insist constitute jerk – scotch bonnet pepper, spring onion, thyme, and allspice (or pimento bush). If these elements aren’t present, the seasoning isn’t technically jerk. Also for authenticity, Jamaican Jerk meats are smoked but can be grilled. Toasting the spices before coating the meat increases the intensity of the flavor, and adds a bit of a crunch to the outside of the chicken when it’s grilled. 

The technique of cooking jerk (or jerking) meats varies. Jerk pork was traditionally cooked slowly in underground pits (to hide billowing smoke from their masters) or smoked over pimento wood. Now, smokers or wood-burning ovens are used.

Not just a culinary fusion, jerk is an “enduring legacy of the fusion of African and Taino cultures in Jamaica”. It was a fusion of two cultures that bonded and cooked together in the pre-colonial Caribbean.

Jamaican jerk is not only a cooking technique or seasoning, to Jamaicans it’s a full experience that can’t be lost in translation. It is a part of their family history, their culture, and a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation.

In August 2018, Jamie Oliver faced social ridicule for his “Punchy Jerk Rice” and was accused of cultural “appropriation”. It was argued that Jerk isn’t a thing that could be used as a label for selling products, but is a seasoning that is meant to be smoked or barbecued, and “rice can’t be barbecued“.

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The Jerk Chicken Taco Twist

In the spirit of fusion cuisine, Jerk Chicken decided to take a little vacation from the Caribbean and make a pitstop in Mexico.

That’s where the magic happens, dear readers. Our beloved Jerk Chicken, all seasoned and smoky, gets folded into a soft corn tortilla, and it’s a match made in foodie heaven.

A taco is a perfect canvas for jerk chicken; plenty of room for customization and toppings. Jerk Chicken Tacos are typically served with a salsa or slaw made with fruit, a delicious contrast to the smoky heat. 

Jerk Chicken Tacos

Tips and Tricks for Jerk Chicken Tacos:

  • If you can’t find scotch bonnet peppers, use habanero or jalapeno. I used both. Also, if you can’t tolerate heat very well, you may want to half the amount of peppers in the marinade.
  • When handling peppers, make sure to remove the ribs and seeds from the peppers before you chop them or put them in a food processor because those hold most of the heat in the peppers. Wear gloves while handling peppers; the oil from the seeds and lining of the peppers will transfer from your fingers onto anything you touch (your eyes!) and burn.
  • Skin-on, bone-in chicken tends to have the best flavor, even if you remove the skin before cooking. Just make sure to brush a little more marinade on your chicken before putting it on the grill.
  • Marinate your meats for at least an hour and up to 24 hours. I found that overnight is the perfect amount of time for maximum flavor. I like to punch holes using a fork in thick areas of meat so the marinade can penetrate deeply.
  • You can make your own seasoning by using my recipe, or you can use this seasoning in the jar, Walkerswood Jamaican Jerk seasoning. I have been told that it has the closest taste to authentic jerk flavor. I’ve used it before, and it’s good.
  • If you find that you like your jerk sauce hot and the burning becomes uncomfortable, don’t drink water. Water will only make it worse because it can’t break down capsaicin molecules; it just moves them around so it may actually make it worse. Drink something acidic, like orange juice or lemonade, which will neutralize the capsaicin. A glass of milk will also work, as will sour cream because high fat dairy can help break down the capsaicin molecules.

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It comes in mild and hot & spicy. I’ve used both, and they’re good. If you make your own, you’ll be able to adjust the seasoning to your taste, as well as how much salt. Another advantage is you’ll get much more seasoning for your money if you make your own, which is always a good thing.

What is Served with Jerk Chicken Tacos?

Variations

  • Instead of corn tortillas, try flour tortillas or crunchy taco shells.
  • For a carb-free version, make a Jerk Chicken Salad. Combine some of the jerk marinade (extra, NOT what you used) with plain Greek yogurt to make a dressing. Top with grilled pineapple, queso fresco, and crispy tortilla strips.
  • With leftover chicken, make Jerk Chicken Nachos and top with shredded monterey jack cheese, sliced jalapenos, and black olives.
  • Make Jerk Chicken Sliders with yeast rolls or Hawaiian rolls by topping shredded chicken with slaw.
  • Use some of the leftover chopped chicken to make chicken salad to stuff in croissants or eat with crackers. 
  • Stuff a baked potato with jerk chicken, top with shredded cheese, sour cream, and chives. 

Ingredients

Chicken

Chicken breasts and thighs with bones: Bone in chicken is better than boneless because the bones add more flavor while cooking, and the chicken tends to be more tender.

Allspice: This is the “hallmark” of spices that gives Jerk seasoning its unique flavor.

Onion powder: Onion seasoning in powder form has a strong onion flavor, and can take the place of onion in dishes.

Garlic powder: A pungent seasoning that also has health benefits.

Thyme: An aromatic herb that adds depth of flavor.

Nutmeg: A warm and subtly spicy addition to this spice blend.

Clove: A spice with camphor and pepper.

Cinnamon:  An aromatic spice that adds to the warmth of Jerk seasoning.

Paprika: A spice made from ground red peppers, this is a commonly used powder that is important to the Jerk seasoning.

Sea salt: Sea salt in coarse form, this is the seasoning that brings flavor to life in all food.

Brown Sugar: A little sweetness to counter the fire that Jerk seasoning brings.

Dried Scotch Bonnet pepper: This is the pepper traditionally used in Jerk seasoning, but jalapeno can also be used if Scotch Bonnet pepper can’t be found.

Olive Oil: Olive oil is used to combine the seasonings into a paste and for browning the chicken.

Pineapple Slaw

Pineapple: Pineapple is the “sweet” in the sweet and savory slaw for the tacos.

Angel Hair Slaw: Cabbage is finely shredded very thin, like “angel hair” pasta.

Purple Cabbage: Sometimes mistaken for radicchio, this is cabbage that is also known as red cabbage.

Mayo*: Mayonnaise, made with oil, eggs and lemon juice, is the binding ingredient in the slaw.

Sea Salt: Sea salt brings out the flavor in this slaw.

Ground Pepper: Ground from peppercorns, this is a warm spice that adds a counter element to salt.

Tacos

White Corn Tortillas: Made in rounds, these are made from white cornmeal and hold the fillings for the Jerk Chicken Tacos.

Queso fresco: Queso Fresco is a popular cheese, specifically in South America, and is a good cooling counter to the heat in Jerk Chicken.

Radishes: Radishes are small, red root vegetables that are sliced and are another cooling balance for topping Jerk Chicken Tacos.

Avocado: Avocados are a fruit that is typically used to make guacamole. They can also be sliced, and used for topping.

Sour cream: Sour cream is a dairy product that is smooth and has a cooling effect on spicy foods. 

Cilantro: Cilantro is an earthy herb that adds freshness to dishes, and used for topping dishes such as tacos, nachos, and soups.

Lime: A citrus fruit that is tart, acidic with a hint of sweetness. This is used to squeeze on top of tacos to add a zing.

Instructions

Combine rub ingredients, add oil, and mix to form a rub.

Using a pastry brush or your hands, cover the chicken with rub, massaging it under the skin if possible. Cover and marinate for an hour up to overnight.

Smoke or grill chicken until temperature reads at least 165°.

Leave the heat on when removing the chicken, and place tortillas on grates, turning once to heat both sides, about 1-2 minutes.

When cool enough to handle, shred chicken meat from bones.

Make tacos by adding chicken to tortillas with slaw and add toppings.

Here’s your printable –

Jerk Chicken Tacos

Jerk Chicken Tacos

Yield: 10-12 tacos
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 3 hours
Additional Time: 12 hours
Total Time: 15 hours 20 minutes

Chicken marinated in jerk seasoning and grilled to perfection, nestled in warm corn tortillas, topped off with a punchy pineapple salsa for a sweet and spicy kick. Great for a weekend taco night!

Ingredients

Chicken

  • 3 lbs. bone in chicken breasts and thighs
  • 2 tbsp. allspice
  • 1 tbsp. onion powder
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 tsp. clove
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tbsp. sea salt, coarse
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. dried Scotch Bonnet pepper*
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Pineapple Slaw

  • 1 cup fresh pineapple, chopped (or 1/2 of 15 oz. can diced pineapple, drained)
  • 1 bag angel hair slaw
  • 1 cup purple cabbage, chopped fine (NOT radicchio)
  • 1/2 cup mayo*
  • 1 tsp sea salt, coarse
  • 1 tsp ground pepper, coarse

Tacos

  • 12 white corn tortillas, taco size
  • Queso fresco or Manchego, grated
  • Radishes, sliced
  • Avocado
  • Sour cream
  • Cilantro
  • Lime

Instructions

  1. Combine rub ingredients, add oil and mix to form a rub.
  2. Using a pastry brush or your hands, cover chicken with rub, massaging it under skin if possible. Cover and marinate for an hour up to overnight.
  3. Smoke or grill chicken until temperature reads at least 165°.
  4. Leave heat on when removing chicken, and place tortillas on grates, turning once to heat both sides, about 1-2 minutes.
  5. When cool enough to handle, shred chicken meat from bones.
  6. Make tacos by adding chicken to tortillas with slaw and add toppings.
  7. Enjoy!

Notes

*Instead of dried scotch bonnet pepper, you can also use 1 fresh pepper cored and chopped.

*You may need more mayo than this, adjust to taste.

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Storage

To Store: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3  days.

To Reheat: Rewarm chicken in the microwave or in the air fryer with a splash of chicken stock or water to keep it from drying out. Add a splash or two of pineapple juice to the slaw and stir to freshen it up.

To Freeze: Place leftovers in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

FAQ

What can I do if the Jerk seasoning begins to burn my mouth?

If you find that you like your jerk sauce hot and the burning becomes uncomfortable, don’t drink water. Water will only make it worse because it can’t break down capsaicin molecules; it just moves them around so it may actually make it worse. Drink something acidic, like orange juice or lemonade, which will neutralize the capsaicin. A glass of milk will also work, as will sour cream because high fat dairy can help break down the capsaicin molecules.

Can I substitute plant based meat for the chicken?

Yes! You can substitute plant based chicken, beef or tofu for the chicken.

What are the advantages of making my own jerk seasoning?

If you make your own, you can adjust the seasoning to your taste, as well as how much salt is added. Store bought seasoning mixes are full of salt and unwanted preservatives. Another advantage is you’ll get much more seasoning for your money, which is always a very good thing. 

Here’s your pinnable-

Jerk Chicken Tacos

Related Recipes

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Fried Chicken Tacos

Instant Pot Shredded Beef Tacos

This article originally appeared on Pink When.

Author

  • Shea

    Shea Goldstein is a writer and the voice behind Dixie Chik Cooks. She's also a recipe developer and brand ambassador. She has been published in several media platforms such as Redbook, Parade, Food Blogger Magazine and more. She has been developing recipes and writing since 2009. Shea is a Southern Belle Who's Thinking About What's For Dinner While Eating Lunch

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