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Jamaican Jerk Oil-Drum Cooking

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Hi All,

Having been incredible lucky and spent the last six months working in Jamaica, I find I am now in sever Jerk Chicken withdrawal. For anyone who likes hot and/or BBQ style food I urge you to get the first possible flight to Kingston and simply drive along the road until you see the smoke billowing from the first 'pan' you find. You will not be disappointed with the hot, succulent chicken that you'll get served.

Coming from the UK where the tendency is to fast grill when BBQ'ing, I was amazed at how tender and juicy a chicken can remain even after (or because it's has?) been cooking for several hours.

So, I'm in the process of building prototype one of my Jamaican pan. I have the oil drum cut in half and the red/yellow/green paint ready.

Now I'm stuck. I'm not 100% sure what the best design should be. Having read lots since I've been back I'm realising that it's all about indirect heat and smoke. I've seen all the fancy designs for smokers where the firebox sits to one side, and so one - but I'm keen to try and be as authentic as possible, and those guys did not seem to have all the fancy stuff.

Thus, if I just put charcoal at the bottom and chicken on top, even with the lid down I'm just gonna grill. Anyone have any other ideas? Fire to one side? Chimneys to draw smoke? Raise the fire? Cover the fire?

I've had a good look around the www and to my amazement I can't find anything.

You are my last hope.



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Ya mon well ya know see me I say those roadside places, typically they don't use anything other than a single drum. There are sometimes two grills, one below for the coals and another above for the food. But just as often the coals just go on the floor of the drum. I've recently initiated work on a small, underline small, cold smoking business in Port Antonio. The local fisherman catch the odd marlin and while there is celebration when it reaches the shore, fresh marlin meat doesn't fetch a very impressive price. I know about the politics of marlin fishing but these are local guys fishing from a sixteen foot canoe, many miles offshore using handlines by which I mean they are fighting these beasts with a piece of car tire wrapped around their hand to keep the fishing line from cutting great grooves into their palms as they pull the fish in. It's not a threat to the population. The long liners and the sport fishers, they are where one ought to fix one's attention. And mostly on the long liners as the sport fishermen largely appear to have cleaned up their acts. All that aside, cold smoked marlin is worth double or triple the price of fresh marlin. So I've been working with a local chef and a local fisherman to get this thing going so the fishing village can make a few extra bucks, or J's as the case may be.

In the service of this project I came upon a cold smoker that could work for you as well as it's been working for me. It isn't necessarily a cold smoker. Can work for long and low heat cooking also, and probably more effectively. I chose this design for its versatility. I found it on the internet somewhere, maybe it was on a "smoke-ring" related site by a southern guy. Can't remember for sure.

Here it is from the rear:


And here is a long shot including me (I'm the large pale man) and the fabricator showing the front:


You can make fire in the bottom for super low slow and smoky and use dampering in the connecting chimneys to achieve cold-smoking conditions. For higher heat you can block off those chimneys and make a fire in the top chamber.

Edited by ned (log)

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Is it true that truly authentic jerk flavor can not be achieved unless one uses pimento wood as the smoke source? I've seen this mentioend in a few jerk discussions and was unsure as to the veracity.

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Jerk is barbecue and not just because it happens to meat over fire. There are as many opinions about jerk as there are well, you can finish that sentence. I think authenticity is achieved more through a dry environment and slow heat with the proper seasoning package (the base of which is scallion, ginger, scotch bonnet, allspice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper) than through the use of a particular wood. All of that said, pimento wood is probably the best. BTW, pimento wood is where allspice berries come from. It's not uncommon to burn the wet leaves as part of the jerking.

Edited by ned (log)

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In the absence of pimento wood (e.g. here in the northeastern US) can you suggest a good substitute? I have hickory, mesquite and oak chips readily available. I have tried alder in the past and found the smokiness to be more subtle than with the other woods. Having never visited Jamaica I'm unfamiliar with the characteristics of pimento wood (I've most likely also never had really authentic jerk but some of what I've had here at hole-in the wall places is pretty darn good). Is it strong and pungent like hickory or more subtle?

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I can't say so clearly. Pimiento trees have biggish green leaves, very wet and heavy like the leaves of a magnolia tree. I've cooked whole mahi mahi on top of a bed of these leaves. . . the gestalt is fruity I guess, maybe in the way that a blended scotch can be fruity. The spice of the berry is sympathetic aroma/flavor but not really found in the wood. Don't know which North American tree would be an approximation.

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It was a couple of years ago and my memory is not that vivid, but I recall a FN show where Cheryl Smith takes a trip to Jamaica and visits a few of those stands. I think she said something about onions being a core ingredient. It doesn't utilize the proper equipment, but if I were looking for a recipe to start with, I'd most definitely take a look at hers:


Re: the wood, since allspice comes from pimento trees, would adding dried allspice berries to the coals of the BBQ do anything? Or adding them to a smokebox?

Jerk chicken isn't skinless, correct? I'm guessing that some of the smokiness in it comes from flareups due to the fatty skin.

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