Barbecue doesn’t just belong to the South! This Grilled Santa Maria Tri-Tip is a delicious taste of the Central California Coast where it is enjoyed with pinquito beans, salad, tomato salsa, and buttery garlic bread.
Grilled Santa Maria Tri-Tip
This isn’t the first recipe I’ve shared extolling the merits of good barbecue, and it won’t be the last. Americans love their BBQ! But each state does it a little differently, often because of the influence of available ingredients or the backgrounds of the people living there.
And while I’m a HUGE fan of southern food and classic southern bbq, I’ve gotta say that they don’t have a corner on the barbecue market. At least not where tri-tip is concerned. And if you haven’t heard of tri-tip, chances are you haven’t spent enough time in California, where it is hugely popular. When you say barbecue in many parts of California, you are talking tri-tip, not brisket, ribs, or pork butt.
To me, Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue is all about gathering family and friends together and eating al fresco, something that we do a lot of here in California. Our church does a big event every summer in late July and the tri-tip is always the main part of the event. It’s perfect for holidays like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc. Basically, any time you might consider grilling. We love making it for Sunday dinner.
Traditionally, tri-tip is cooked over huge open grills and served with the traditional sides of pinquito beans, salad, and garlic bread. But it’s just as easy to make at home on your own grill.
But first, What is Tri-Tip?
A tri-tip roast (also known as the triangle cut or triangle steak) comes from the bottom sirloin and is called tri tip because of the three different points on the ends of the crescent-shaped cut of beef. It has big beefy flavor, and is a very lean cut of meat. Most tri-tip roasts typically weigh between 1.5 to 3 pounds, although you can find some that are even a little larger than this. Tri-tip is easy to find in any grocery store or butcher shop on the West Coast, but I’ve heard that in other parts of the country you might need to ask your butcher to keep it whole for you rather than cutting it into steaks.
The grain of the tri-tip goes in two different directions, which is important to know because you need to slice the meat against the grain after it is cooked to a perfect medium-rare in order to get the most tender bites.
Unlike other roasts that you cook low-and-slow to break down connective tissues (I’m looking at you beef brisket), Santa Maria-style tri-tip barbecue cooks fast over an open flame until medium-rare. Traditionally, it’s cooked over red oak, which is plentiful around the Santa Maria area of California, but this tri-tip is still delicious even if all you have is a gas grill.
Tri-tip leftovers make the most delicious salads and sandwiches, so I always try to make sure we have enough for extra. It’s easy to scale up and make more than one tri-tip depending on the size of the group you are planning to feed, but one tri-tip typically feeds our family of 4 for 2-3 meals depending on how we use the leftovers. I’m not the biggest salad eater, but tri-tip salad is the best! I could eat it every day!
Santa Maria tri-tip is served as-is, without any barbecue sauce, unlike most Southern-style barbecue. For even more info about tri-tip, this article from amazingribs.com is very thorough and describes it as “poor man’s prime rib”.
Brief History of Santa Maria Tri-Tip
I found two different origin stories for “authentic” Santa Maria tri-tip and couldn’t figure out which is actually true, so I’ll share them both here.
In one, the story is that a California butcher in the 1950’s named Bob Schutz had too much ground beef and stew meat, so he took the bottom sirloin (what we now call the tri-tip cut) typically used for chopping or grinding and roasted it on a rotisserie. Allegedly, he was the one who started calling this cut of meat tri-tip and the rest is history.
The other story is that the Mexican cowboys and workers in the Santa Maria region would get the less desirable parts of the cattle, including the bottom sirloin, and they were the ones who figured out how to grill it quickly and slice it thin against the grain for tender, juicy bites of perfectly seasoned meat.
Regardless, whoever came up with this method for cooking this particular cut of meat was a genius because it is so incredibly delicious and never fails to satisfy guests.
How to Carve Tri-Tip
Like I mentioned earlier, slicing the tri-tip is a big part of what makes this meat so tender and delicious. Since the grain runs two ways, if you sliced the entire tri-tip roast in the same direction, half of the meat would be tough to chew. So here’s how you do it so that every bite is tender and wonderful:
- First, cut the tri-tip in half from the middle point of the crescent. You can actually see where the two different grain patterns meet and that’s where you want to slice to separate them. (see the diagram below for a visual)
- Then turn each piece of meat half a quarter turn and slice it across the grain from the point to the thick end in thin slices. I shoot for slices that are somewhere around 3/8-inch thick.
My Tri-Tip Tips
- Rub the tri-tip with the spice rub and let it sit at room temperature for an hour. This serves a dual purpose. First, it gives the rub some time to marinate the tri-tip and allow the salt in the rub to tenderize the meat. It might look like a lot of rub, but the amount is perfect and will give a nice, flavorful crust once the tri-tip is grilled. Second, it takes the chill off the meat so it grills properly. If you put cold meat straight out of the fridge onto a hot grill, it isn’t going to cook as well as if you allow it to come up to temp a bit.
- Place the tri-tip on a preheated grill (a medium heat of around 350-400 over direct flame is just right) and then don’t touch it! Leave it alone so it can sear on one side, then flip it over to cook the other side. It only takes about 5 minutes on each side, depending on the size of your tri-tip. Move the seared meat to the indirect heat side of the grill and cover for a grill temperature of 250-300 degrees F. Cook until for roughly 20 to 30 minutes until you get a perfect medium-rare, which is 130 degrees F on an instant read meat thermometer. Remember that because tri-tip has tapered ends that are thinner than the middle, the ends will be more well-done for those who prefer their meat that way, while the thicker, middle slices will be juicy and pink and perfect.
- Let it rest. Like any good steak or other cut of meat, it needs time after coming off the grill or out of the pan for the juices to redistribute. If you cut into your tri-tip without giving it time to rest, all those juices will run all over the cutting board and you will lose both flavor and quality of texture. Also, the temperature of the meat will continue to rise by 5 degrees F while it rests. Give the grilled tri-tip 10-15 minutes before slicing into it.
How to Cook Tri-Tip in the Oven
I really prefer to grill tri-tip, but if the weather is terrible or you don’t have a grill, you certainly can cook tri-tip in the oven. Just heat a cast iron skillet or heavy duty, oven safe pan over medium-high heat on the stovetop and sear the tri-tip with the fat side down for 2-3 minutes, then flip it over and transfer the pan, tri-tip roast and all, to a preheated, 425 degree F oven to cook for about 10-15 minutes per pound of meat until it reaches 130 degrees F on an instant read meat thermometer. Then let it rest and carve as described above!
More “Must Try” Tri-Tip Recipes
- Tri-Tip with Chimichurri
- Brazilian Smoked Tri-Tip on a Traeger
- Sweet & Spicy Grilled Tri-Tip
- Garlic Rosemary Tri-Tip Roast
- Spice Rubbed Grilled Tri-Tip
Barbecue doesn't just belong to the South! This Grilled Santa Maria Tri-Tip is a delicious taste of the Central California Coast where it is enjoyed with pinquito beans, salad, tomato salsa, and buttery garlic bread.
- 1 (2-3 pound) tri-tip roast, preferably with good marbling and some fat on one side
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all of the rub ingredients in a small bowl, then rub over the meat and let it sit out for 1 hour, covered, so it isn't cold when it goes on the grill.
Preheat the grill for both direct and indirect heat. Sear the tri-tip over direct heat (right over the flames) on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to indirect heat (between 250-300 degrees F) and cover the grill, letting the tri-tip cook until it reaches 130 degrees F on an instant read digital meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat for a medium-rare tri-tip. This should take roughly 20 to 30 minutes. Remember that the temperature will continue to rise about 5 degrees after taking it off the grill.
Let the tri-tip rest for 10 minutes before slicing it in half to separate the two different grains, then slicing thin slices against the grain of each piece.
If you are curious, a rare tri-tip would be 120 degrees F, and medium would be 140 degrees F, but I highly recommend taking the tri-tip off at 130 degrees.
Want to see the other states I’ve visited in my American Eats Series? Check them out below!
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