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Our Favorite Authentic Santa Maria Tri-Tip Recipe and Tutorial

Our Favorite Authentic Santa Maria Tri-Tip Recipe and Tutorial

Some folks call it tri-tip, others call it a Santa Maria, California, Newport or triangle steak. Here at the BBQ Pro Shop Factory Team, we call it the most flavorful (and underrated) cut of beef you can get.

Tri-tips are perfect for summertime backyard gatherings. Your guests will already be salivating from the smoke show by the time you present them with an impressive, meaty centerpiece.

Best of all, it’s easy to prepare, no matter what kind of grill you have. All you need are a couple sharp knives, a few hours of patience for marinating and seasoning, an instant-read thermometer and a standard 2-zone grill set-up.

In Southern California where this cut is most renowned, it’s customary to cook tri-tips on a suspended grill over a bed of red oak coals. For the rest of us, any charcoal or gas grill will handle the job perfectly well. 

Table of contents

What is a tri-tip steak

Where to get tri-tip

How to prepare a tri-tip before cooking

How to grill a tri-tip steak

How to carve a tri-tip steak

Our best tri-tip recipe

What is a tri-tip steak

The tri-tip comes from the lower tip of the bottom sirloin, and it’s shaped a bit like a lazy triangle, hence the name tri-tip.

As any beef-lover knows, sirloin is one of the most flavorful sub-primals. But because it’s leaner and less tender than premium cuts like the tenderloin or ribeye, it tends to be more economical – especially for feeding a larger group. Most tri-tips fall in the 2-3 lb. range and will anchor a hearty meal for 5-8 people. If you have fewer folks to feed, so much the better. The leftovers will be perfect for steak and eggs or a steak sandwich.

Where to get tri-tip

We suspect the main reason tri-tip is so underrated is because it’s not broadly marketed east of the Rockies. In fact, we’ve never seen it at our local grocery store, and it’s not a given that a specialty butcher will have one in the case.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t sell tri-tip. It may well be mixed into the ground sirloin, and if you’re willing to develop a relationship with the meat cutters, you should be able to save the next one from the meat grinder.

Lately, we’ve had great luck ordering tri-tips online from  Wildforkfoods.com, which stocks multiple grades of hard-to-find cuts and ships nationwide. We’ve tried both their prime and choice grade tri-tips and would be hard-pressed to tell the difference when they’re cooked to perfection.

How to prepare a tri-tip before cooking

Trimming and preparing a tri-tip is about as easy as it gets, and we like to do most of it the night before. At a minimum, give yourself 4-5 hours before you want to start cooking.

Start by using a sharp knife to trim off any silver skin. We like to use a filet knife, which makes it easy to remove the tough stuff in long strips, while leaving the meat intact.

There shouldn’t be much superficial fat, and we suggest you leave it to promote extra charring and boost the smoke and grill flavors. Just cut off any loose pieces that seem likely to end up in the bottom of the grill.

While not essential, we like to marinate tri-tips overnight in the fridge for extra tenderness and flavor. Use your favorite steak marinade or see our recipe for an awesome marinade based on Croix Valley Original Steak Sauce. A bottle of Italian salad dressing will also do the job.

In the morning, remove the tri-tip from the marinade and pat off the excess before applying a generous coat of seasoning. Our favorite recipe starts with a dusting of William Mann’s Pit O’ Heaven Comeback Pit Grit followed by a medium-heavy coat of Cattleman’s Grill California Tri-Tip Rub.

Return the tri-tip to the refrigerator until 60-90 minutes before grilling, then set it on the counter to start coming up to room temperature.

How to grill a tri-tip steak

You can pre-sear or reverse sear your tri-tip, depending on which method you’re most comfortable using. We find it’s a little easier to nail our final temperature when we pre-sear, and some argue that it also helps with moisture retention.

Either way, the key is a two-zone cooking set-up, with direct heat around 500F to achieve the searing, and indirect heat to handle the rest of the cooking.

From there, you’re pretty much grilling a giant steak. During the searing portion of the cook, give it at least one flip and a couple turns per side until you get a nice char -- usually around 4-5 minutes per side.

For the rest of the cook, lower the temperature a bit and move to indirect heat. Plan on another 30-40 minutes to finish it off.

Tri-tip is best cooked medium-rare to medium, and you should count on a few degrees of carry-over. I like to get mine off the grill by the time the thickest part hits 128F on an instant-read thermometer. By that point, the skinnier part will be on its way to medium, so I get a range of doneness to satisfy everyone at the table.

How to carve a tri-tip steak

Tri-tip isn’t the most tender cut, so you want to make relatively thin slices against the grain. The only trick is to realize that the grains don't run in the exact same direction across the entire piece of meat. 

Start by finding the place where the direction of the grains starts to diverge (see white line on photo illustration), then separate the muscle at that point. 

Then simply make thin slices – about pencil width – perpendicular to the grain on each piece. Carve just enough for first helpings and serve immediately to help retain heat and juices.

How To Carve a Tri-Tip Diagram

Our best tri-tip recipe (so far)

  1. Remove silver skin from a 2-3 lb. tri-tip.
  2. Assemble and mix marinade: 8 oz. Croix Valley Original Steak Sauce plus 1 can beef broth. Keep marinade at room temperature until ready to use.
  3. Marinate tri-tip in refrigerator for at least 4 hours or as long as overnight.
  4. Remove from marinade and pat dry with paper towel.
  5. Apply a light coat of Pit O’ Heaven Comeback Pit Grit.
  6. Apply a generous coat of Cattleman’s Grill California Tri-tip Rub.
  7. Set tri-tip on cookie rack and return to refrigerator for 3-4 hours.
  8. Remove from refrigerator about 1 hour before grilling.
  9. Prepare a 2-zone (direct and indirect) grill.
  10. Sear tri-tip over direct heat for 3-5 minutes per side, basting each side with leftover marinade once it’s seared.
  11. Add a small piece of oak wood to grill for additional flavor (optional).
  12. Move tri-tip to indirect heat and continue cooking until the thickest portion reaches 128F.
  13. Remove tri-tip from grill and rest 10-15 minutes before carving.
  14. Carve pencil-width slices against the grain of the tri-tip and serve immediately.

Mr. Freak is pitmaster of Smoke Freaks, the BBQ Pro Shop Factory Team. He and his partner, Ms. Freak, are the tongues and testers behind the Factory Team Flavor Guide.

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