12 Things You Need to Know About Tri-Tip


Tri-Tip Dinner Photo by Jim Bob Barnett

What grills like steak, but slices like brisket? Offers the beefy flavor of sirloin, but is mercifully forgiving when it comes to grilling time? If you answered tri-tip, you probably come from southern California, and if not, follow us to Santa Maria, where you’ll experience some of the best beef barbecue half the country has never experienced.

The year was 1952. The scene of the crime? An old Safeway store, long since razed, in this agricultural town on California’s Central coast. A one-armed butcher (really!) named Bob Schutz had the idea to spit-roast a crescent-shaped cut from the bottom of the sirloin that was normally ground into hamburger or cubed and sold as stew meat. “Are you nuts?’ a co-worker scoffed. “It’ll be tough as hell.”

But Schutz persevered, seasoning the meat with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, then threading it onto the spit. What later slid off the rotisserie blew the Santa Marians away. Carved across the grain, it was moist, tender, and satisfying—with the rich sanguine flavor of costlier sirloin.

I wish I could say tri-tip was an overnight success. But this cut, known as IMPS/NAMP 185D in butcher-speak, might be the most popular cut of beef you’ve never heard of.

That’s changing, and fast. People across North America are discovering that tri-tip is a mouthwatering cross between a steak and a roast that’s perfect for grilling. It’s even been hailed as “poor man’s prime rib.” Deluged by inquiries, the California Beef Council developed a guide to tri-tip cutting that you can print out and share with your local butcher.


Photo by John Mayer

So now that the introductions have been made, here are 12 things to know about tri-tip:

  1. In Santa Maria, which has a long history of barbecue thanks to early Spanish settlers, tri-tip is cooked on wood-burning grills with adjustable grates that are raised or lowered with a crank or pulley.
  2. Traditional accompaniments for tri-tip include Santa Maria-style salsa, grilled garlic bread, salad, and small pinkish-colored beans of Hispanic origin—pinquito—stewed with tomatoes, onions, and spices.
  3. Local red oak is the fuel of choice for grilling tri-tip on California’s Central Coast: It imparts a mild smoke flavor to the meat. Though hard to find in the rest of the country, red oak smoking chips can be purchased online from Susie Q’s Brand. Susie Q, aka Susan Righetti, comes from Santa Maria Valley tri-tip royalty. The website also sells dried pinquito beans and tri-tip seasonings.
  4. Most tri-tips (there are two per animal) weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds and will serve 3 to 4 people—more if made into sandwiches. There is virtually no waste.
  5. Try to buy grass-fed beef when you can, preferably “Choice” or “Prime.” For the ultimate splurge, try the Wagyu trip sold by Lobel’s.
  6. Like flank steak, this lean cut is best when cooked to medium-rare (130 to 135 degrees). However, its tapered shape means the tail will be more done and can satisfy people who prefer their meat that way. The thicker center and head will still be pinkish-red.
  7. Tri-tip is very accommodating. You can season it just before cooking with a dry rub (as simple as coarse salt, pepper, and garlic powder), a wet rub or spice paste, marinate it for several hours before grilling, baste it as it cooks, or serve a sauce on the side. (All of the South American sauces I blogged about recently—Argentinean chimichurri and Brazilian molho à campanha, for example—are good candidates.)
  8. A whole tri-tip can be cut into individual steaks before grilling. Sometimes, it is packaged this way in supermarkets, especially in California. In New York City, where tri-tip is not well known, they might be labeled “Newport steaks.”
  9. Whole tri-tip can be smoked, seared over high heat and then indirect grilled, (with or without smoke, but you know how I’d vote), or spit-roasted.
  10. Always allow tri-tip to rest for 5 minutes before carving so the juices have an opportunity to redistribute themselves.
  11. Study the grain of the meat before you cook it as it changes from the thick end of the tri-tip to the thin end. Santa Maria grill masters slice the cooked tri-tip crosswise into two pieces, the natural division marked by a visible line of fat, then carve each separately for maximum tenderness.
  12. If someone offers you “Cardiff Crack,” they’re talking about the addictive Burgundy- and black pepper-marinated tri-tip from the Seaside Market in Cardiff-by-the-Sea near San Diego. (The family-owned market swears its customers came up with the term.) It’s a SoCal thing, but the market will ship the marinated raw meat to you via overnight delivery. Your grill could be rockin’ some tomorrow night, dude.

Pick up these tools to help you make the best tri-tip possible: