Why It Works
- A shorter marinade than many recipes reduces overall cooking time without any loss in flavor.
- Jamaican Browning sauce used in the marinade and braising liquid adds complex, savory depth.
- Adding the chicken breast pieces to the stew for only the final 25 minutes of cooking ensures they won’t overcook.
Brown stew chicken is a rich and silky Jamaican stew. Of course, stew chicken is not specific to any one Caribbean island, and while different islands may have recipes that appear similar, there are subtle but important differences. For example, a Trinidadian version might be very similar to the recipe I’m sharing today, but Trinidad’s distinctive green seasoning would be added to the base, while Haitian poule en sauce would omit browning sauce or sugar and put more emphasis on the tomatoes and peppers. In Jamaica, what defines brown stew chicken is that the chicken is seared in oil and then braised in a brown gravy with sweet bell peppers and a kick of Scotch bonnet, although the specific recipe can vary from kitchen to kitchen.
The Role of Browning Sauce
Browning, a Jamaican kitchen pantry staple, is a sauce made from caramelized sugar, heated until the sugar liquifies, smokes, sputters, and nearly blackens. Home cooks will often make it from scratch as a preliminary step to recipes like this stew chicken, leaving it in the pan so they can sear the chicken directly in it, or it’s made in advance, bottled, and stored. By the time the sugar is charred to the appropriate color, it’s no longer an overtly sweet ingredient; it can be a bit smoky, nearly bitter, and, when made with dark brown sugar, it may have a hint of molasses. Spices are sometimes added, but since browning has both sweet and savory applications, I steer clear of additions.
I used the bottled version of browning in this recipe because it’s more convenient—you don’t have to dirty a pot and burn sugar, thin it, and cool it just to add a tablespoon to your marinade. The process, like making a good roux, can take a practiced hand, and the residual sweetness can vary based on how dark it gets; if you burn it, it becomes too bitter to use. However, that tablespoon is crucial, so don’t omit it: It helps the chicken take on a caramel color when it’s seared, which then gently seeps from the chicken into the gravy to produce a beautiful dark copper color. If you add a little more browning to the base of the stew, the gravy’s hue deepens to a lush mahogany.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Caribbean kitchen that doesn’t rinse their chicken, using both water and lime or vinegar. I’m not going to ask you to spray down your chicken, as that’s discouraged by the CDC, but I want to note that this is a common practice, one that’s been etched into the muscle memory of many, many cooks, part of the generational transfer of culinary knowledge and recipes. Cleaning the meat in this way serves a purpose beyond eliminating harmful bacteria; it also allows the cook to finish plucking feathers and wiping away lingering bone fragments. Once the chicken is rinsed clean, lime juice or vinegar is used again in the marinade itself for acidity and flavor, and that’s where I start with this recipe, with an acidic marinade.
Traditionally Jamaican recipes have long overnight marinades with all but a few ingredients for the final stew covering the chicken. Everything is then scraped off of the chicken the following day before it’s cooked and all the vegetables are reunited shortly after when any liquid from the marinade is returned to the now-seared chicken. I find that a shorter marinade yields the same results, and I omit many of the vegetables in the final stew from the marinade, as sautéing the vegetables in the searing oil helps to dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Once the vegetables and aromatics are bloomed in the oil, I then blend in the reserved marinating liquid.
Brown stew, like other chicken stews in Jamaica, starts with a whole chicken cut up. If you’re not partial to eating chicken wings that are slathered in sticky gravy (although, if not…why not?) you can reserve them for another purpose, like a chicken stock, or you can substitute the whole chicken with all legs and thighs. When stewing a whole chicken, the breast meat can get sad and dry if it’s left to cook along with the bone-in dark meat for the entire time, so instead I call for adding the breast meat to the pot in the last 25 minutes of cooking.