Matt Horn’s Oxtails with Sweet Barbecue Sauce

Oxtails with sweet barbecue sauce from the new "Horn Barbecue'' cookbook.
Oxtails with sweet barbecue sauce from the new “Horn Barbecue” cookbook.

If like me, you greatly admire people who persevere against punishing odds, then Matt Horn surely deserves your utmost esteem.

Read the first few pages of his new cookbook, “Horn Barbecue” (Harvard Common Press), of which I received a review copy, and it will just about break your heart.

In it, Horn recounts his earliest pop-up in 2016 in the broiling summer heat in Tracy. He had been up all night, readying his spareribs, pulled pork, and brisket that he set up in a cramped black tent outside Ralph’s Bar. Horn, who intended to stay there until all the food was sold, was joined by his wife, who was then eight months pregnant.

As the hours ticked by, the sweltering temperatures rose only higher. In that time, only one customer made a purchase. Just one.

Horn couldn’t have felt more dejected or more like giving up.

The last thing he wanted to do was to have to cart all that food back home — along with his wounded pride. So, he loaded it all up and drove to an impoverished part of town, where many were unhoused. He started doling out the food for free to eager and hungry folks. It was at that moment that he felt the true power of his cooking — the ability to connect and bring joy to people.

It propelled him to keep the faith and not to waver from his path.

It wasn’t long before his pop-ups in the Bay Area would be on everyone’s radar. And soon after, his Horn Barbecue would fling open its doors in Oakland to legions of fans who willingly wait hours in line for a taste of his soulful fare.

Now, that spirit and taste are captured in this marvelous cookbook. Learn how to make “Hot Links From Scratch,” Burn Barrel Chicken” (with brown sugar adding dark caramelization), the famed “Horned Brisket,” and “Banana Pudding.”

I so love oxtails, thanks to my dad making them regularly when I was growing up. He’d braise them, which is how I usually cook them, too. So, I was eager to try Horn’s “Oxtails,” which offer a different method, as they are smoked.

The oxtails get a simple overnight marinade of olive oil, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper.

If you can, try to get large oxtails, all about the same size, as they are meatier and will all cook in the same time. I know that’s not always possible if you buy a bulk packet already wrapped up to go. In that case, just know that the smaller pieces will likely cook in less time. Just remove them, and let the larger pieces continue to cook.

Oxtails smoking in the Big Green Egg.
Oxtails smoking in the Big Green Egg.

Horn, of course, uses a smoker. We made do with our Big Green Egg.

Depending on their size, the oxtail will take about 3 to 5 hours to cook.

We cooked them for 3 hours. My husband was skittish to let them cook further. As he notes, there’s a fine line when cooking something like brisket between when the intermuscular fat melts into unctuousness and when it dries out. Not wanting to risk the oxtail overcooking and drying out, we pulled them out of the fire instead.

We let them rest in foil before digging in. They were tender, though, a little more chewy than fall-apart tender, as Horn describes in the recipe. But barbecue is as much an art as a science. And definitely, practice makes perfect. So, we plan on smoking more oxtails again to experiment on the timing.

It’s not like our arms had to be twisted. Not with these oxtails that were so smoky delicious. The recipe states that it serves 4. Depending on the size of your oxtail, I think it serves more like 2 to 4, so I added that to the recipe description.

Ketchup is the base for this easy barbecue sauce.
Ketchup is the base for this easy barbecue sauce.

To dress the oxtail, I made a batch of Horn’s “Sweet Barbecue Sauce.” One thing I really appreciate about this book is that the recipes for the rubs and sauces do not make a vat large enough to feed an army. I typically end up cutting such recipes by 3/4 or else risk lots of leftover rubs and sauces ending up forgotten in the pantry or fridge.

Instead, Horn’s sauce recipe makes a very manageable 1 cup. It couldn’t be easier to make, too. This one is a ketchup-heavy sauce that’s simmered with brown sugar and honey for more sweetness, soy sauce for a meaty saltiness, and Worcestershire sauce for a boost of umami. It also calls for liquid smoke, which I didn’t have handy. After Googling around and learning that smoked paprika makes a good stand-in, I used a teaspoon of that instead. It did the trick, adding an edge of smokiness that was sweet and peppery, too.

Not all of us are lucky enough to find our true passion in life. But fortunately for those of us who smack our lips over fine barbecue, Horn surely did.

Don't be afraid to use your fingers to eat with. It's worth it.
Don’t be afraid to use your fingers to eat with. It’s worth it.

(Serves 2 to 4)

5 pounds beef oxtails, cut and trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons onion powder

2 teaspoons coarse black pepper

Make sure that the oxtails are clean and dry.

Place the oxtails on a flat surface and drizzle the olive oil over them.

In a small bowl, stir together the salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and pepper until just well blended. Generously sprinkle the seasoning all over the oxtails.

Place the oxtails in a large freezer bag and refrigerate them overnight.

Preheat the smoker to 300 degrees.

Place oxtails in the smoker and smoke for 3 to 5 hours (depending upon their size!) until the meat starts to pull away from the bone. (Note: If you have a mix of smaller and larger oxtails, you may have to pull the smaller pieces from the smoker earlier and allow the larger ones to continue cooking.)

Remove the oxtails from the smoker and cover them with aluminum foil. Let the oxtails sit for 30 minutes (if eating immediately), or refrigerate or freeze them for later use.

Sweet Barbecue Sauce

(Makes about 1 cup)

1 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons honey

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke OR 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

In a medium saucepan, stir together the ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, honey, salt, pepper, and liquid smoke or smoked paprika. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat to low and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened.

Use immediately, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

Adapted from “Horn Barbecue” by Matt Horn

More: A Visit to Horn Barbecue in Oakland

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  • I’ve never had BBQ oxtail, much less made my own. Love this recipe! And what a swell sounding book. Thanks!

  • Hi John: Definitely worth making. It was so fun to try this technique, too! 😉

  • Joyce Konigsberg

    I love the ribs and pulled pork sandwich at Horns most but the Brisket was pretty tasty (even though I’m not a Brisket mega fan)

    . Loved the beans, slaw and potato salad, too!

    Will definitely look for this book!

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