The Flaming Lips were probably eating this sauce when they came up with their band name. A warm, spicy, and flavorful sauce, Jamaican jerk sauce is the perfect accompaniment for pork, chicken, beef, and veggies.
One of my most memorable foodie experiences happened long before I ever wrote about food. It was on my honeymoon in St. Lucia. We took a gamble on an off-resort tour that offered small, personalized groups and a unique experience.
My Jerk Sauce Recipe
We snorkeled, visited the volcanoes, and took a dip in the mud baths, but the grand finisher was our guide taking us to his home where his wife made us a meal. On a huge patio in the rainforest, we drank beer and talked about food and she let me cook with her. She did not cook for me, she invited me into her kitchen and I was able to make our meal alongside her (and her 4 children).
All of the dishes were good, but her jerk sauce was AH-mazing! I wanted to smother everything in it and take a to-go container home. I watched her make it, made mental notes, and came home to start experimenting with my own.
What is Jerk Sauce?
Jerk-style food is typically associated with Jamaican food, but is made throughout the Caribbean. The word jerk reportedly stems from the Spanish charqui and refers to modern-day “jerky”, but what made it special was the spicy marinade of scotch bonnets and allspice.
Today, many dishes are called “jerk” and aren’t jerky, but still use a jerk sauce. Jerk sauces, like Italian red sauce, vary greatly by region and family. There are hundreds of great recipes and no one way to make it.
Most chefs will agree that the key ingredients are scotch bonnets, allspice, thyme, and garlic. A robust and heady mix that is then made into a paste or a sauce.
Why You’ll Love My Jerk Sauce
My sauce is a little different than some. One because it isn’t Jamaican, but two because I’m recreating it from memory.
- Sweet– Most jerk sauces are spicy, but there aren’t many that have a sweet element. I’ve used mango, just like my St. Lucian friend, to balance the acidity and heat.
- Sauce instead of Paste– Many sauces are more like a paste, smeared onto meats and then grilled or smoked. This is a sauce that can be dipped and drizzled on nearly anything.
- Easily Accessible Ingredients– I’ve found the fresh scotch bonnets are challenging to find and while they really do make the sauce, habaneros offer similar heat and are easier to find.
- Well-Balanced– One of the biggest critiques of sauces is that they are too allspice forward. Lime juice and mango help to bring out the warm undertones of the allspice without it taking over.
While the list of ingredients is a little bit long, it’s well worth it to achieve the complex flavors of this amazing sauce.
- Fresh mango: The fresh mango imparts sweet, tropical flavor to the jerk sauce, complementing the heat and spice of the peppers.
- Light soy sauce: The light soy sauce adds umami-rich flavor to the sauce.
- Fresh lime juice: Tangy and citrusy, fresh lime juice provides bright and refreshing acidity. You can also opt for lemon juice or even orange juice.
- Water: Water is added to thin the consistency of the jerk sauce.
- Garlic cloves: Garlic adds aromatic flavor.
- Scallions (Green onion): The scallions contribute a fresh and mild onion flavor to the jerk sauce. You can also use yellow onion if you prefer.
- Habanero or scotch bonnet peppers: These hot peppers are the star of the show — they give jerk sauce its signature intense heat and spiciness.
- Ground allspice: Ground allspice provides a warm and aromatic taste similar to cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
- Sugar: The sugar balances the heat and spiciness of the jerk sauce while adding a touch of sweetness.
- Vegetable oil: The base of the sauce, vegetable oil helps to emulsify the ingredients in the jerk sauce and creates a silky texture.
- Dried thyme: Dried thyme adds earthy flavor to the jerk sauce.
- Coarse kosher salt: Salt brings out all of the flavors in the other ingredients.
- Ground black pepper: Ground black pepper rounds out the flavors in the sauce.
- Ground nutmeg: Warm and slightly sweet, nutmeg helps to build the complex flavor profile.
- Ground cinnamon: Ground cinnamon adds a subtle and warm sweetness to the jerk sauce.
How to Make Jerk Sauce
It’s amazing how quickly you can make this sauce that’s so full of flavor.
- Combine. Add the ingredients to a large food processor.
- Mix. Combine the ingredients using the recommended settings.
- Add to container. Pour the sauce into a jar or other airtight container.
- Chill. Refrigerate for the recommended amount of time before serving.
- Use. Serve with meats, vegetables, or even as a dipping sauce for french fries.
How to Use Jerk Sauce
Jerk Sauce can be served hot, warm, at room temperature, or even cold. Traditionally it is served with pork but can be served with chicken, lamb, beef, seafood, vegetables, and more.
We like this jerk sauce recipe exactly as written, but there are plenty of ways you are able to make it your own.
- Sweet Elements– I use fresh mango, but canned mango works, as does pineapple and swapping the water for pineapple juice. Brown sugar, with elements of molasses, can also be used in place of white sugar.
- Spices– This is a spice-heavy sauce. Allspice berries, used here ground, can be swapped or replaced with ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and even Chinese five spice. These can be added or omitted based on personal preference.
- Acid– Lime juice and soy sauce is our top choice for acid, but either can be swapped for white or apple cider vinegar.
- Pimento Seeds– Also commonly used in the authentic versions, they are hard to find if you don’t have access to specific markets. If you can find them, use 1-2 tablespoons.
Storage and Freezing
You can easily make this sauce and store it in the fridge for when you need (or crave) it.
Refrigerator: Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Freezer: Freeze the sauce in a freezer-safe container or freezer bag for up to 3 months.
Common Questions About Jerk Sauce
Jerk sauce is very spicy, but you can adjust the spice level to what your taste buds can handle — for milder jerk sauce, reduce the amount of habanero peppers or scotch bonnet peppers that you use or replace some of them with a milder pepper like serrano peppers or tabasco peppers. For spicier jerk sauce, increase them or (carefully) incorporate hotter peppers with higher Scoville heat units like ghost peppers or scorpion chilies.
Jerk sauce has a spicy yet sweet flavor with a touch of warmth and earthiness.
Jerk is both! It has peppers that lend spicy flavor to the sauce and mangoes that balance out the spiciness with their sweet flavor.
Other Spicy Sauces
- 3/4 cup fresh mango cubed
- 1/4 cup light soy sauce
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup water
- 6 cloves garlic
- 6 scallions green onions
- 3-4 habanero or scotch bonnet peppers seeded
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Place all of the ingredients for jerk sauce into a large food processor. Pulse and then grind for 1 minute.
- Transfer the sauce to an airtight container and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.
- Serve over pork, chicken, beef or with vegetables.
- If you’ve tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was in the comments or star ratings.