Chef Michael Symon offers tips on home tailgating, BBQ and Browns

As a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns, celebrity Michael Symon is well-versed in the idea of comfort food. After all, the Browns haven’t given their fans a whole lot of reasons to celebrate since, well, the 1980s.

But Symon isn’t planning on abandoning his beloved team anytime soon — even after last year’s false-hope season.

“Been a fan as long as I can remember, born and raised Clevelander,” Symon, 50, told Yahoo Sports. “I’m always optimistic.”

Symon has built a food empire and can be seen regularly on Food Network (check out “Symon’s Dinners Cooking Out” at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sundays), and he previously had a long run as co-host on ABC’s “The Chew.” He also oversees 12 restaurants — half in the Cleveland area, including the incredible Mabel’s BBQ downtown — that bear his name and serve his food.

This means Symon is a very busy man who is pulled in a lot of directions. And with more responsibility, his tastes have changed over the years.

Although he still tries to carve out time each week to watch his Browns, it has become harder for Symon to get to games the way he sometimes did back in the day.

“I don’t tailgate like I used to!” the effervescent chef said.

Chef Michael Symon has a game plan for Cleveland Browns game days this fall, and it involves lots of backyard grub and time to hang out with friends before kickoff — and after the game, win or lose. (Michael Symon)

Symon took some time out of his schedule to talk about how football and pre-game activities could be quite different this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting his state hard and raising questions of whether there will be fans at football games this season, the tradition of stadium tailgating could be disrupted as well.

That would be a big shift for some football fans’ gameday activities. And yet it’s a shift Symon has been making more and more anyway. He’s a huge fan of having a group of people over to his place — and building an entire day around football, food, friends and family.

It’s not the same as going to the game, Symon said, but he might like it even better.

“I think you can still have fun doing it at home,” he said. “Maybe even more.”

Symon knows this is not some novel concept here, but he believes this is going to be the way football will be consumed en masse this season, assuming the games still happen.

Setting up the perfect football tailgate at home

Symon’s dream setup for a game: throw on some BBQ.

While it might sound like a dream activity for some, others may not want to put in all that work. As many are jumping into the grilling, smoking and BBQ game these days, it’s an activity that’s not as daunting as it once was thought to be.

“I’m a big fan of BBQ for tailgating,” Symon said. “It takes time, but it gives you time to hang out with your buds, debate the games, etc. 

“Since many people may not be going to games this year, a good driveway BBQ and watching the game in the garage sounds like a great, old-school dream to me!”

For a night game, Symons suggests throwing on your protein early in the morning — remember, low and slow is the cooking key here — or even the night before, for a morning or early afternoon game.

For grill novices, Symon recommends pork butt as his starter meat of choice. People like it, it’s tasty and versatile and, as Symon notes, there’s “nothing more forgiving than pork butt.”

Meaning, it’s hard to overcook. The biggest rub: With a cooking time of an hour and a half per pound, it’s a long process.

Ribs and corn — a staple of chef Michael Symon’s backyard BBQs on game days. (Michael Symon)

Ribs are also an easy choice. And the best part is that compared to a large pork butt or beef brisket, they take less than half the time to cook.

Symon doesn’t add sauce to his ribs, but doesn’t look down on anyone who does. Just remember: “If you do sauce, do it at the end of the cook or it will burn in you,” he said.

One more tip: “Also, remember smoke sticks to moisture; so spritz your meat every hour with a cider-water mixture.”

Once you get the hang of it, Symon said, you can branch off into different meats — and ones that take a little more practice and technique. Best not to wing it with kickoff fast approaching.

For instance, if you’re new to BBQ, you might not be ready to take on, say, a whole hog (stuffed with house-made sauerkraut and kielbasa) with clams and corn steeped in all that glorious pork smoke.

Even if it looks incredible and could earn you unofficial home-tailgate-of-the-year honors.

“A tailgate clambake,” Symon calls it.

We’re all in on that.

The key is to become friends with chef Michael Symon, and then your gameday food will look like this (Michael Symon)

Choosing your backyard equipment

Many enthusiasts already have their favorite device — or collection of backyard toys — picked out. But Symon has some thoughts on equipment that can work for outdoor cooking neophytes and wizards alike.

“If you want to really dive in and commit to it, an offset is what you want,” he said.

Offset smokers are chambers (that look like small oil drums) attached to the side or back of the main cooking chamber. Heat and smoke travel from the fire box heat sources and through the offset chamber to flavor and cook the food. This is what the pros use.

Yoder and Mill Scale make great smokers,” Symon said.

But fear not, beginners: You have some other good options to learn and perfect your craft. 

“If you are dipping your toe in the water, I have had great success with Weber,” he said, “and they are pretty affordable.”

Some BBQ enthusiasts will buy multiple machines that serve as unitaskers for whatever specific applications they’re seeking. Of course not everyone can afford that route — or has the backyard space for several units.

Symon has a solution for those who seek adaptability in their backyard cookers.

“If versatility is what you are looking for, Big Green Eggs are very flexible,” he said. “There are better options in each category but few [devices] that can go from pizza to smoker to grill pretty easily [as it can].”

Once you settle on your equipment, Symon said it’s best to give them a few test runs first. After all, you don’t want to serve a hungry mass burned or dry brisket on gameday. Win or lose, that’s going to mar your party.

Worried about grilling the night before and having the meat get cold? Don’t be, Symon said. His trick: wrap your BBQ up and pop it in a Yeti cooler.

“And it will stay hot for 12 hours!” he said.

Symon also recommends thinking about your sides in this regard, too. 

“Do sides that hold up hot or cold — potato salad, poppyseed slaw and spicy creamed corn with lime,” he said.

We’re ready for kickoff now.

Ready for Browns season

Symon is as worried as anyone about football happening in the fall. But he’s excited at the idea of the Browns becoming consistently good again, something that hasn’t happened since before the all-star chef even finished culinary school.

In fact, last year’s 6-10 season didn’t even phase him that much.

“I actually had them at 8-8 last year going into the season,” he said. “They had a lot of new pieces.”

The Browns and QB Baker Mayfield are trying to bounce back from a tough 2019 season. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

This year, Symon has high hopes for Baker Mayfield and the boys. 

“This year, I’m feeling 10-6,” he said. “Maybe even 11-5. I’m feeling good about [new head coach Kevin] Stefanski, and I haven’t felt this great about a coaching hire since Butch [Davis].”

Yes, Symon knows Davis was fired midway through his fourth season in Cleveland following a 24-35 record. But remember, he’s the self-proclaimed optimist — and one of these years Browns fans’ faith will be rewarded.

And if it’s not in 2020, at least the gameday victuals still will be incredible at Symon’s backyard BBQ. Comfort food can solve just about any problem.

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