What is Tri-Tip Steak? [Cooking, Smoking & Grilling Guide]

Beef tri-tip is a delicious cut of meat that has an ever-growing army of fans. But what exactly is it, and what’s the best way to enjoy it? Find out everything you need to know about tri-tip steak with our beef guide.

tri-tip meat guide

Tri-tip steak is unlike any other cut of beef you’ve ever had. Originally hailing from Southern California, tri-tip has grown in popularity and has become a mainstay at barbecue competitions all over North America.

It’s not difficult to see why. With a rich and beefy flavor, it’s just as delicious as BBQ staples like rib-eye but comes at a fraction of the price.

But what exactly is tri-tip steak? Where does it come from? And what are the best ways to cook it? Find out everything you need to know with our beef tri-tip guide.

raw tri-tip seasoned in bbq dry rub

What is tri-tip?

This is a cut of beef that is originally from California. It was made famous in California, and as such, many people call it the Santa Maria steak or California Cut. It has many other names which we will take a look at. Its intense flavors make it a much sort-after piece of steak. 

When it comes to pricing, it is also on the lower end of pricing and is economical. This is a significant advantage for a sizable steak. Compared to other similar cuts that will give you a similar flavor, this one emerges as a winner. However, to get the best flavor, you shouldn’t overcook it. It does well on the grill. 

beef cuts cow diagram
Tri-tip comes from the tip of the bottom sirloin of the beef

The clue is in the name. Tri-tip is a triangular-shaped cut of beef with three tips. It is cut from the bottom sirloin subprimal cut. It is a boneless steak that is usually about 1 inch thick. It’s also quite heavy, weighing about 1 ½ to 2pounds, and will be enough for more than one person. So if you are one for sharing your food on a date, this will give you a great excuse to do so! 

It goes by several different names, and this sometimes confuses people. You may find it challenging to find tri-tip, partly due to the number of names it goes by: Newport steak, Sirloin butt, Triangle tip, Newport steak, Santa Maria steak, or triangle steak. In France, it is called aiguillette Baronne; in Northern Germany, it is called Pastorenstück. In Spain, it is called rabillo de cadera. 

One may wonder why it is a popular cut in so many regions of the world. The answer is quite simple. It is a lean cut with just the right amount of fat, does great on a grill, and won’t break the bank. Few cuts can be said to be both lean and yet tender, flavorful, and yet economical. But tri-tip cuts across all these divides. 

What does it taste like?

Tri-tip has a rich beef flavor. It has a fair amount of fat marbling, which gives it a juicy and tender taste, even though it is a lean piece of meat and does not have a fat cap. The rich flavor you get with tri-tip is similar to what you get with other pricier cuts, but tri-tip is more affordable. 

It needs to be cooked properly. Otherwise, it can turn out to be quite tough and chewy. Another advantage is that it is easy to marinate, and as such, it quickly soaks up the flavors you need it to. 

Tri-tip vs. flank steak

Flank steak is from the cow’s belly muscles and isn’t even a steak. While it may seem like it’s the same area that tri-tip is taken from, which is the bottom sirloin, it isn’t. Tri-tip is positioned just above the flank steak.

The two cuts also differ in shape. Tri-tip is naturally triangular while flank steak isn’t.

Flank steak is better cooked as thin slices if you want it cooked through properly and often be used as stuffing or folded or rolled up.

Flank steak is a long and flat steak, whereas tri-tip is triangular and thicker.

Flank steak needs to be cut against the grain for best results, while this is not the case with tri-tip. 

Tri-tip steak vs. tri-tip roast

It seems like something you really shouldn’t be asking because it’s probably the same thing, right? Wrong! Yes, they are both tri-tip, but they are not the same thing. The difference is that tri-tip roast is the entire roast while the steak isn’t. Instead, tri-tip steak is cut from the roast. A roast can weigh up to 5 pounds, while a steak can be between 1 – 2 pounds.

Cooking methods

Smoked

smoked tri tip recipe

While grilling tends to be most people’s first choice with this cut of beef, there’s nothing quite liked smoked tri-tip. Originally done on a Santa Maria grill, thanks to its unique pulled wheel mechanism, it can easily be adapted on an offset or pellet smoker.

Prepare it by trimming off any excess fat and the silver skin on the underside. Then marinate it with a dry rub. Let it rest in the refrigerator for about an hour before placing it in the smoker at 225°F.  

Grilled

tri tip steak kebob skewer recipe

Another method that you could choose is grilling. You can do this in an oven or on a gas or coal or pellet grill. The first season your meat, and then grill it at 250˚F until the internal temperature is at the right level of doneness. Try our grilled tri-tip kabobs for something really unique.

Reverse-Seared

To reverse sear a tri-tip steak, you will need a pan or skillet to lock in moisture and sear, not burn the meat. You want to get the meat looking a lovely shade of brown, possibly with searing marks. 

Nutritional Value

Tri-tip is rich in protein, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, zinc, iron, riboflavin, phosphorus, selenium, and choline. To be exact, for every 3 ounces of meat, you get:

110 Calories from fat, 4.8 g Saturated Fat, 0 g Trans Fat, 0.5 g Polyunsaturated Fat, 7 g Monounsaturated Fat, 0 g CLA Fat 55 mg Cholesterol, 60 mg Sodium, 25 g Protein, 3.05 mg Iron, 365 mg Potassium, 0.24 mg Riboflavin, 0.37 mg Vitamin B6, 2.37 mcg Vitamin B12, 222.6 mg Phosphorus, 5.92 mg Zinc, 8.65 mcg Selenium, and 95.92 mg Choline.

Times & temperatures

There are a lot of recipes that tell you to cook until done. But what does that mean? Is it until it looks done or until the timer goes off? The best way to tell if the meat is ready is to go by its internal temperature. This will save you the hassle of poking and prodding a perfect cut, just to see if the inside is to your liking. 

It is vital to have the right internal temperature because this guides you to how much longer you need to keep the meat on the grill or in the oven. It helps you know when the meat is now safe to eat without the possible danger of causing illness. There are food-borne illnesses that can be caused by food that is not properly cooked. So your eyes will not be enough to tell when it is safe enough to eat. 

If food does not reach the right internal temperature, there’s a danger that harmful bacteria could cause infection. You will need to use a meat thermometer. For tri-tip, the internal temperature needs to be at least 145˚F for medium, 130˚F for rare tri-tip, and 140˚F for medium-rare.  

Smoking

Sometimes you may want to go for a smokey taste. You can achieve this by cooking the steak in a smoker. The key to making a flavorful piece of meat is to ensure that it is seasoned well. This is half the battle. Once this is in place, you can preheat the smoker, getting it ready for the meat. 

Place the meat in the smoker and cook it until it reaches 5˚ less than your desired internal temperature. This is done because when the meat is left to rest, it will continue to cook. To smoke it effectively, you will need to set the smoker at 225˚F. You can estimate about 30 minutes for each pound of meat. 

Grilling

If you prefer to barbeque grill your beef, you may begin preparing the meat, whether you are marinating it or using a dry rub. Then fire up the grill. At this point, you can choose to use a particular wood so that you get that flavor in your food. 

One of the tricks that I have found helpful when using wood chips is to soak them in water for about half an hour before adding them to the grill. You will need to have it on the grill for between 1 and 1 ½ hours, up until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 130˚F if you prefer your meat rare. 

Do you need to marinate it? 

Marinating meat before you smoke or grill, it is necessary to infuse different flavors in the meat. Before smoking, you could use a dry rub consisting of spices or basic as just salt. Or you can use a wet marinade which may consist of different sauces, whether store-bought or homemade. This is where all the fun is, where you can make your meat taste different from your neighbors because your marinade is different. 

Not marinating it can pose the danger of adding spices over the meat, which often isn’t very effective. When you marinate it, you allow juices adequate time to penetrate and be part of the meat. 

Tri-tip is lean meat, and this means that it is prone to drying out. Marinating meat can also make it tender and juicier, in addition to adding flavor. There are sauces such as Worcestershire sauce, a double-edged sword, infusing flavor and tenderizing it.

Marinating works in a similar way as brining. It also introduces moisture to a piece that may have been previously dry, such as tri-tip. Meat does not need to have excess fat; for it to be juicy, you can marry different flavors, and cook it the right way and still have the necessary flavors. 

When you marinate meat, you also alter the texture for the better. It uses a combination of ingredients to ensure that you get the melt-in-the-mouth texture that may otherwise be absent when the meat is cooked. Also, marinating meat can reduce cooking time. It is important to find the right balance of salt, sugar, and acid in your marinade. Otherwise, you risk drying the meat out. 

If your marinade has sugar in it, it may burn quicker on the grill, so you will need to be careful while cooking it, making sure that it doesn’t burn. If this isn’t something you can do, then marinating with a sugar-based mixture may not be a good idea.

You will need about 24hours to marinate the meat in the refrigerator. Ultimately, the decision is yours. Marinades do well with tough cuts, such as tri-tip, and they can make all the difference between a flavorful piece of meat and a tasteless one. 

How to store tri-tip after smoking or grilling

When you are done cooking tri-tip, whether it is smoking or grilling, you must let the meat rest, but remember that it will continue to cook. So make sure that you remove it from the heat when it is 5˚ away from being done. But now, what do you do once everyone’s had their share and you need to store it?

You can refrigerate it. To do this, you will need to make sure that the meat is placed in the fridge 2 hours after the meal has been prepared. This is if the weather is cool. If it is warm, then you can put the meat in the fridge after 1 hour. Make sure you transfer the meat to a container that is fridge-safe. It will store for a few days, and can be reused in a number of inventive ways. Check out our leftover tri-tip recipes post for some inspiration!

Where to buy tri-tip

You can buy tri-tip at your local butcher’s or in a supermarket. However, you may not necessarily find meat that is marked tri-tip. In most cases, it is sold as part of a larger piece, and it needs to be cut away. The shop attendant may not even know what you are talking about. It goes by many different names, so it’s useful to know the characteristics and know what to look for. 

It is not a common steak to get. You may find it under the name Santa Maria steak, California cut, Newport steak, sirloin tip, sirloin butt, culotte, bottom sirloin, or top sirloin. This is in addition to the other names we mentioned. It is hard to find but worth the hassle. 


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