Up Your Grilling Game: How to BBQ Like a California Pitmaster

Up Your Grilling Game: How to BBQ Like a California Pitmaster

By Alejandra Saragoza
July 02, 2020

Summer is in the air, and that means the smell of barbecue should be, too. This season is the perfect time to fire up your grill or smoker and churn out juicy burgers, fall-off-the-bone ribs, tender brisket, flame-kissed steak, succulent chicken, and classic summer veggies. But if you want to up your grilling game this year, glean a few BBQ tips from a California pitmaster who’ll help you be on your way to making delicious meats that rival what you’re used to eating at your favorite barbecue joint. 

We’ve got just the guy: Matt Horn, the owner of Oakland-based Horn Barbecue, has become a West Coast barbecue gamechanger, with a cult-like following spreading across the U.S. What started as a humble farmers market operation has boomed into a nationally recognized BBQ brand with countless sold-out pop-up events from L.A. to the Bay Area and across the country—drawing crowds of people willing to wait two or more hours for the impeccable pit-smoked meats and mouthwatering sides. 

Horn’s expert BBQ and grilling tips will have you serving up meaty perfection in no time, so get ready to break out the tongs and enjoy summer cookouts in your backyard all season long. 

Meet the Pitmaster

Oakland chef and acclaimed pitmaster Matt Horn learned how to barbecue at his grandmother's home in Fresno. Photo courtesy of Horn Barbecue.

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Considering he’s a renowned pitmaster and award-winning chef, it’s surprising that Horn’s obsession with barbecue started entirely by accident. Though the California native grew up eating BBQ, he never set out to master it—until he had an embarrassing barbecue mishap in front of his girlfriend at the time. He promised himself he’d never cook bad ’cue again, so he started honing his craft in his grandmother’s backyard and eventually found success selling his meats at farmers markets in San Joaquin County.

“My desire to learn to cook turned into an obsession to learn everything I can about the art of barbecue,” Horn says. “That obsession has pushed me every day to take my product to the next level. Plainly put: I'm obsessed with my craft.”

Horn is famous for his deeply flavorful brisket, tender ribs, oxtails, juicy hot links, and classic bbq side dishes. Photo courtesy of Horn Barbecue.

Horn’s business really took off after Austin-based barbecue photographer Robert Jacob Lerma saw pictures of his meats online and invited him to Texas, taking him to a James Beard Taste America event and introducing him to meat master Aaron Franklin. During his trip, Horn also met other barbecue legends such as Wayne Mueller and Tootsie Tomanetz.

The rest, as they say, is history. Armed with his newfound knowledge, Horn started to put his own twist on Texas-style barbecue—slow-cooked ribs, brisket, and sausage with simple seasoning—drawing inspiration from the Golden State. He quickly became a restaurant pop-up sensation by giving the Bay Area (and beyond) hormone-free, dry-rubbed smoked meats and classic, handmade sides such as pit beans, potato salad, collard greens, and cornbread. But Horn’s signature offering is the deeply flavorful brisket, which is cooked for 16 to 18 hours over California white oak. 

The Bay Area resident launched the Horn Initiative to provide meals for medical workers and families in need. Photo courtesy of Horn Barbecue.

Horn plans to open his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in West Oakland later this year, in the former home of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen. But lately, he’s shifted his attention toward helping the local community through his Horn Initiative, which aims to feed those in need. Since launching in mid-March, the Horn Initiative has served over 4,000 meals to families, essential employees, and medical professionals working against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our dream is to feed the world with our love-driven food,” Horn says. “In times of crisis, our hope is that the meals we make with care will bring welcome relief, especially for those most in need. We are a company that has been blessed with a sense of abundance. And our vision is to share that abundance as an expression of our love for people. From gratitude comes service, and from service comes love.”

Matt Horn’s BQQ Tips and Tricks 

Whether you want to barbecue ribs, steak, or chicken, Horn’s got you covered. Below, the acclaimed chef and pitmaster shares his secrets to making restaurant-quality BBQ at home. 

Whether cooking fresh fish, grass-fed beef, or free-range chicken, decide if smoking or grilling your protein is best.

Find your preferred cooking method 

Meat can be smoked or grilled, and everyone has a different method they like to use. The biggest difference between smoking and grilling is time. Smoking uses low, indirect heat to cook meats for a longer period of time, creating a more tender and flavorful product. The downside? Smoking can be an all-day process that involves constant temperature monitoring to make sure the meat cooks evenly. Meanwhile, grilling is typically done over higher heat for a relatively short time, making it much quicker and more accessible. 

Aside from the amount of time you have, the size of the meat you’re cooking is another factor to consider when deciding whether to smoke or grill. Larger meats such as briskets benefit from large smokers, and smaller meats like chicken and steak cook better on a grill. 

Take it from Horn: “For briskets or pork shoulders, I like to use my smoker,” he says. “If I’m grilling, I cook steaks, pork chops, or baby back ribs.”

Pick the right type of wood

When it comes to selecting the type of wood to use for grilling or smoking, it all comes down to the flavor you want the meat to have. Whether you use smaller wood chips or larger wood chunks, different types of wood will produce different flavors, as different types of trees have unique compositions and burning points. Cherry wood, for instance, has a mildly sweet and fruity flavor that is a good match for all meats. Hickory, however, creates a strong bacon-like flavor that works particularly well with pork and ribs.

“The taste of the meat definitely varies with each wood,” Horn says. “When I grill something, I enjoy using a fruitwood like cherry or apple. When I’m smoking something over a longer period of time, I use a hardwood like oak or hickory.” 

Barbecuing doesn't require fancy tools or kitchen appliances, so keep it simple with a spatula or tongs, a grill brush, and high-quality meat.

Ditch the fancy tools and equipment

While it’s tempting to buy top-of-the-line grilling accessories and high-end gadgets, you don’t need them to cook up Instagram-worthy ribs, succulent steaks, saucy chicken kebabs, or charred pork chops. According to Horn, all that’s needed for a successful barbecue is “good-quality meat, tongs, a spray bottle, and a grill brush.”  

Use water to keep the meat moist and tender

When you’re grilling, you can use a spray bottle to spritz the meat with water to prevent it from drying out. If you’re using a smoker to cook meat, Horn suggests placing a bowl or pan of water in the chamber prior to cooking to ensure a moist environment. (Some smokers may already have a built-in pan or tray that’s designed specifically for water.) As the temperature of your smoker increases, the water will evaporate out of the bowl or pan; when this happens, some of the airborne particles will land on your meat to keep it moist. Every 30 minutes or so, check the water levels and refill the pan or bowl as needed. By keeping the pan or bowl full of water, your meat is more likely to stay juicy and cook evenly. 

Barbecue is an art form, so trust and enjoy the process of honing your craft and finding your style.

Don’t rush the process

Even if your friends and family are clamoring for food, don’t cut corners in an attempt to finish faster. Take the time to clean and prep the grill or smoker, get the fire going, season or marinate the meat, and cook the meat properly. 

“The biggest mistake I see is not trusting the cooker to do its job,” Horn says. “It’s important to not rush things when cooking barbecue. Enjoy the moment and be patient with your food. Everyone has a different process—find yours and have fun with what you are doing.”

What are you most excited to grill this season? Let us know in the comments. 


Alejandra Saragoza

Alejandra Saragoza

Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…

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