Jerk Sauce: Your Guide To This Spicy Caribbean Marinade

jamaican jerk sauce ingredients
Jerk sauce is a defining characteristic of Jamaican cuisine. The marinade is made with scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, fresh ginger, thyme leaves, cinnamon, pimento (allspice), nutmeg and other spices. It gives many Caribbean recipes a distinct ''island-y'', savory, spicy, sweet, and herbaceous flavor.

What Is Jerk Sauce?

Jerk sauce is a spicy sauce and marinade originally from Jamaica. It is a puree of scotch bonnet peppers, soy sauce, brown sugar, thyme leaves, pimento (allspice), cinnamon and nutmeg, among other spices.

Boasting a savory, sweet, hot, and herbaceous flavor, authentic Jamaican jerk sauce is commonly used to marinate meats. The most popular dish is easily Jamaican jerk chicken. By thinning the sauce with water, it can also be used as a condiment to add heat and flavor to already-made dishes.

jamaican jerk chicken
Authentic Jamaican jerk chicken.

So why the name ”jerk sauce?” ”Jerk” is simply a method of seasoning and cooking meat, be it fish, goat, pork, beef, or chicken, though the method was originally invented to prepare pork and wild game. Jamaicans will also tell you that the term “jerk” refers to the jerking motion of turning meat on the grill and chopping it up. 

The native Jamaican cooking style involves dry-rubbing or marinating meat with jerk sauce or seasoning. 

Is Jamaican Jerk Marinade Spicy?

Jerk marinade is traditionally very spicy, using scotch bonnet peppers (100,000-350,000 SHUs). However, you can customize the spice level by level by reducing or increasing the number of scotch bonnet peppers used or by using different peppers altogether.

If you love the heat, you can experiment with adding different types of hot chili peppers, like the Carolina Reaper (1.5M+ SHUs) or the ghost pepper or scorpion pepper (both range from 750,000-1.5M SHUs). For a milder sauce, try a jalapeno (2,500-10,000 SHUs) or serrano (10,000-25,000 SHUs).

Keep in mind that scotch bonnet peppers have fruity undertones, which is why they work so well with Caribbean spices and the tropical fruit salsas often served with jerk meat. Using a different pepper can change the flavor profile of your sauce. 

What Peppers Can Be Substituted for Scotch Bonnet Peppers?

Scotch bonnet peppers and habanero peppers are very similar. You can use them interchangeably to make Jamaican jerk sauce.

Other peppers you can use as substitutes include:

Each pepper has a distinct taste and heat level. If you’re sensitive to heat, start small. You can always add more peppers, but you can’t take them out!

Caution: When handling scotch bonnet peppers or other hot peppers, wear gloves as capsaicin (the oil that gives peppers their spice)can irritate your skin. Avoid touching your eyes before removing the gloves, and wash your hands thoroughly.

What’s The Difference Between Jerk Sauce & Jerk Seasoning?

Jerk sauce or marinade is wet. Jerk seasoning is a dry spice blend. They both contain many of the same traditional ingredients.

Dry jerk seasoning can be applied as a dry rub on meat and left overnight before grilling. It can also be sprinkled on right before cooking, making it ideal for seasoning quick-cooking foods like shrimp and vegetables. 

Wet jerk sauce can be used to marinate lean, quick-cooking meats for thirty minutes before grilling. Larger cuts, like pork roasts and goat shanks, can marinate overnight or for several days to absorb the sauce’s flavor. 

Dry jerk seasoning is readily available in most grocery stores. Certain brands make a bottled jerk sauce, but you can easily make it at home to customize the heat level and consistency.

Is Caribbean Jerk Sauce The Same As Jamaican Jerk Sauce?

Yes, Caribbean jerk sauce is the same sweet and spicy sauce referred to as Jamaican jerk sauce!

The native Jamaican “jerk” cooking style that involves rubbing meats with a sweet and spicy sauce or seasoning gained popularity across the Caribbean and worldwide. You will find variations of the recipe based on the region. For example, some Caribbean jerk recipes may use lime juice or orange juice and red onion instead of apple cider vinegar and green onions traditionally used in Jamaica. 

How To Use Jerk Sauce

In addition to marinating meat, you can get creative with the ways you use this sweet and spicy condiment:

  • Adding to veggie burgers or tuna patties
  • Brushing on grilled cauliflower steaks
  • Drizzling over Jamaican jerk french fries
  • Flavoring quinoa and rice
  • Flavoring tofu and tempeh for vegetarian jerk dishes
  • Mixing with mayonnaise and spreading on sandwiches
  • Scrambling into eggs for a breakfast burrito

Jerk sauce goes well with several types of meat, including chicken, pork, ribs, fish, and beef.

jamaican jerk ribs
Jamaican jerk sauce on ribs.

How To Make Jerk Sauce

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jerk chicken

Jamaican Jerk Sauce

  • Total Time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: 1 batch of sauce 1x


Use this basic recipe for Jamaican jerk sauce on chicken, ribs, steak or veggies.


Units Scale
  • 1 coarsly chopped white or sweet onion
  • 3 coarsely chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • 2 Scotch bonnet peppers (more or less to taste), seeds and veins removed and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tbsp ground allspice
  • 1 tbsp Chinese 5-spice powder
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground or freshly grated nutmet
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme (or a large branch of fresh thyme, destemmed)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce, coconut aminos or tamari
  • 1 tbsp light vegetable oil, like grapeseed or avocado


  1. Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor, and blend until smooth.
  2. This recipe makes a paste-like consistency rub. For a thinner marinade, add 1/4 cup water.
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Category: Main Course

To make your own Jamaican jerk seasoning dry-rub, try this recipe from AllRecipes.

How To Use Jerk Sauce For Different Meats

  • Chicken – To prepare jerk chicken, loosen the skin and generously spread the sauce underneath and into the open cavity. 
  • Pork, beef or goat – Score the fat and rub the sauce generously over all surfaces of the meat.
  • Fish and boneless, skinless chicken – Coat both sides of the fillet. 

Marinate thin cuts of meat for 30 minutes. Larger cuts can be marinated for 3-8 hours to overnight. 

For an authentic flavor, grill low and slow over charcoal or wood. Cut the meat into presentable pieces and serve with fresh Jamaican jerk sauce on the side.


ErIka didn’t grow up with gardening or peppers but she’s turned out to be a spicy foods enthusiast. Today, she not only loves super-hot chilies but also finds solace growing hot peppers. She grows different types of peppers using growing devices, automated indoor gardens, and containers. Keep it here for all matters peppers!

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