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At-Home Chef: Secrets of the Smoke

Michael Brown has a secret identity. By day, he’s, at turns, been a producer for ONN, the go-to communications guy for Mayor Coleman, and now, he’s director of public affairs at Experience Columbus. However, behind the suit-and-tie guy is…

Downtown Smokin’ Mike Brown.

For the past decade, this Columbus cheerleader’s backyard has been smoke central. You can smell the meaty goodness from blocks away. Today, soaking up flavor on the charred grates of his much-used Kenmore, are slabs of bacon, a veal roast, and trout.

It was 10 years ago that Brown’s alter ego began to emerge. Drawn by a love of smoked meats, the desire to please family and friends, and the accessibility of information on the interwebs, the DIY smoke-master took on the task of teaching himself the secrets of smoldering meat.

“The only secret is time,” he divulged. “Really…we’ve all heard ‘low and slow’ and it’s true…you have to have the time to watch it, to let it go, and not open the lid…it will work out. Really.”

Another tip is to not let the charcoal flame up. “Flames create creosote and that will flavor the meat – also, don’t use anything like Matchlight because that will show up in the meat as well.”

Now that he has mastered the basics, Brown is free to experiment. Currently, he is working on some bacon that has been liquid cured in Brothers Drake Apple Pie mead. Brown also picks up salmon bellies, the fatty strip cut away when filets are butchered, from the North Market Fish Guys, and cures and smokes them to make “salmon candy.” His great Andrew Zimmern moment was once smoking a whole pig’s head.

“It was amazing,” he said, looking to the heavens. “We had it on this platter and it never made it onto plates – people grabbed knives and forks and it was eaten right off the bone.”

“It was reported to me that the eyeballs were amazing.”

Growing up in Northwestern Ohio farm country gives Brown the network to locate a whole pig’s head, but in town he gets all his meats from Blues Creek in the North Market.

“They are now selling these “Columbus” ribs – they’re like the St. Louis cut, but with pork belly attached,” he explained, holding his index finger and thumb a half-inch apart. “About one-half to one-inch of pork fat. At Blues Creek, you know the meat was raised not far from here.”

Standing outside, on this sunny snowy day, Brown opens the grill lid and smoke rushes out, creating a trail to the sky. Occasionally, neighbors notice the universal sign of protein prep, and stop in for a taste. Other times, the gray tendrils cause a bit of a ruckus. “Someone called the firehouse once,” Brown recalled. “You know, brisket can take 20 to 24 hours, a pork shoulder 16 hours, so I’ll start up the smoker at 11 p.m. and finish up around noon.”

When on a bender like that, the home chef also rises around 3 a.m. to check on the progress. Well, add together roiling smoke and the witching hour, and you have a fire engine rolling up the alley with its big spotlight looking for the hot mess.

“They were cool,” he laughed. “They just wanted to share in the spoils later.”

Brown sees his enterprise as adding character to the downtown Columbus vibe. Standing outside, looking to the sky, the cooking hobbyist grins, “You can smoke meats year-round, all in the heart of the city!”

As the telltale vapor curls and dips over the neat Victorian Village houses, he explains that Columbus is a city of constant energy. “We’re not branded yet – like Cleveland, its image is set in rock, but Columbus, it’s pure opportunity, it’s like a novel we all get to write.”

And Downtown Smokin’ Mike Brown will get the chapter on smoked meats.

How to turn your backyard grill into a smokin’ bacon machine
Go get yourself some pork belly. Brown favors the proteins from Blues Creek at the North Market. A full belly is eight to eleven pounds, which Brown divides into four smaller slabs. If you don’t have an army of bacon lovers banging down your door, the butcher will cut a belly down for ya.

Once home, clean that belly. Rinse it off with water and pat super dry. If there are any fatty bits hanging off the side, get rid of ’em. Now it’s time for the cure. Mix equal amounts of salt and sugar, enough to cover the whole slab, front, back, and sides. Wrap it tight – really tight – in Saran Wrap, place it in a container, and put it in the fridge for at least a week.

With the waiting finally over, unwrap the bacon-in-training and re-rinse it. Get outside and turn the grill on. Put all the charcoal over to one side because bacon likes indirect heat. Grab a bag of woodchips (mesquite is easy to find) and put them in a bowl of water. Back inside, get all that salty sweet crust off the meat and pat it dry.

Next up – the spice mix. This is a personal thing. While it’s popular to go brown sugar, Brown likes a more robust rub. He blends three kinds of freshly ground peppercorns and a little salt. When he wants to get hotter, he adds some paprika and chili pepper.

Check to see if the grill is ready. It takes around 45 minutes, but the ideal temperature is a steady 200 degrees, with no leaps of flames. When the heat has reached its temp, throw some wet wood chips on the coals and place your pork slab on the no-charcoal side of the grate.

Let it smoke for six hours. Check the temperature every now and again; throw some wet chips on the coals every now and again.

It’s done when you can look at the slab sideways and see that the striations of fat have turned a lovely translucent. Wrap it tinfoil and put it in the fridge. Before putting your masterpiece away; however, take moment and slice a thin strip off the bacon, a cook’s treat. “It’s amazing,” rhapsodized Brown. “It’s like bacon butter – it just melts on the tongue.”