Tri-Tip: A Favorite Cut of Beef
What's your favorite cut of beef to grill? My favorite is the triangle-shaped "tri-tip", from the bottom sirloin. It's also called a "Santa Maria steak" because Santa Maria, California is where it first became popular.
Typically tri-tip is rubbed first with a mixture of salt, black pepper, and garlic salt, and then whatever other seasonings you want, and then barbecued over red oak wood.
How to Cook Tri-Tip
I love the cut because it's just a fat, juicy steak that cooks up beautifully on the grill, as detailed in the method below. You can marinate it, or use a classic Santa Maria rub. In this recipe, we are starting with the basic rub and added some herbs and a little cayenne.
Some recipes will have you cut the layer of fat off the roast, I prefer to keep it on, and bathe the steak in the juiciness of fat as it cooks on the grill.
If You Can't Find Tri-Tip
Now, the only problem with tri-tip is that it can be hard to find outside of California, though I understand Costco does carry it. If you can't find it, you can still use this approach and the Santa Maria rub with a thick (look for a two-inch thick or greater) well-marbled sirloin steak or London broil.
What is Santa Maria Seasoning?
In its simplest form, a Santa Maria rub typically consists of salt, pepper, and either garlic salt or garlic powder. From there some cooks opt for additional seasonings such as sugar, cayenne, and dried herbs.
How to Grill Tri-Tip Steak
Follow these tips to get the best results when cooking your steak.
- Season it in advance to give the seasoning time to penetrate the meat and enhance its flavor.
- Let it come to room temperature before cooking for more even doneness.
- While searing the tri-tip on the grill, watch it carefully. As the meat's fat heats up, it can drip down and cause flare-ups. Keep moving the tri-tip away from the flame if flare-ups occur.
- Use a meat thermometer to check for your desired level of doneness (120°F for a rare, 130°F for medium-rare and 140°F for medium).
- Rest the meat 5 to 10 minutes after cooking to allow the juices to redistribute.
How to Cut and Serve Tri-Tip Steak
It's best to slice tri-tip thinly against the grain, which shortens the muscle fibers and makes them easier to chew. Heads up: tri-tip actually has two different grain directions which intersect near the top point of the "triangle."
If you'd like to serve your tri-tip with some of the traditional Santa Maria BBQ sides, consider the following dishes:
- Pinquito beans
- Fresh salsa
- Tossed green salad
- Grilled French bread, dipped in melted butter
No Grill? How to Make Tri-Tip in the Oven
To prepare tri-tip in the oven, start in the same way as you would with the grilling method—assemble your seasoning rub, massage it into the roast, and allow the seasoned meat to come to room temperature. Rub softened butter all over the meat and sear it in a cast-iron or carbon-steel pan on the stovetop. Finish the roast in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes or longer, until the internal temperature is 120°F for a rare roast, 130°F for medium-rare and 140°F for medium.
For a delicious oven-roasted tri-tip recipe, try our Marinated Tri-Tip Roast with Mushrooms and Garlic.
Make it a Meal: Sides That Pair Well with Tri-Tip Steak
Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip
- 1 tri-tip roast (also known as triangle steak, a bottom sirloin cut), anywhere from 2 1/2 pounds to 4 pounds, look for one well-marbled with fat
- Santa Maria Rub (enough for a 4 pound roast)
- 1 tablespoon coarse or chunky kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon finely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary (or fresh, finely minced)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
Mix rub and massage into roast:
Mix the rub ingredients together in a bowl.
Place the roast in a roasting pan or a baking pan with edges (this will help keep the rub from getting all over the floor).
Sprinkle the rub on the meat on all sides, and massage the rub into the meat.
Cover and let sit at room temp for an hour:
Cover the roast with foil or plastic wrap and let it sit at room temp for an hour to take the chill off and allow the rub to work its magic on the roast.
Prepare your grill for hot direct heat on one side, and indirect heat on the other. (By the way, if you are working with a wood-fired grill, Santa Maria BBQ traditionally uses red oak wood.)
Sear the roast:
Sear the roast for 3-4 minutes per side. Carefully watch the roast during this process as one side of the roast is typically quite fatty and as the fat heats up it can drip down and cause flare-ups. Keep moving the tri-tip away from the flame if flare-ups occur.
Move roast to cool side of grill, fat side up:
Once the tri-tip is seared on all sides, move it away from direct heat and place it fat-side up on the grill rack.
If you are using a gas grill with a top rack, I recommend placing the roast on that rack, with an aluminum tray on the bottom rack underneath to catch the fat drippings.
If you are grilling on charcoal or wood, you may want to turn the roast over every few minutes, for more even heating.
Try to maintain a grill temperature of 250°F to 300°F.
Cover to finish cooking:
Cover the grill and cook until the temperature of the interior of the tri-tip reaches 120°F for a rare roast, 130°F for medium-rare and 140°F for medium.
At this point the meat will take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to cook, depending on how hot your grill is, how well done you want it, and the size of the cut.
Note that the interior temperature will continue to rise at least 5°F after you take the roast off the heat.
Tent roast with foil to let it rest:
Once the roast reaches temperature, remove it from the grill and let it rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10-15 minutes.
Slice across the grain to serve.