Tri-tip is a staple in my family. It’s easy to make and so, so flavorful. Not to toot my own horn (honk, honk), but since I’ve been making tri-tip in the Santa Maria style, I’ve had multiple people (fans) tell me it’s their new favorite way to eat steak.
Tri-tip is a rather inexpensive cut of meat, depending the grade and of course, the weight of the roast. The tri-tip I’m barbecuing today is USDA Choice, which is slightly more affordable than USDA Prime. The USDA grading system is based on the amount of marbling (fat) throughout the beef — the more fat, the more tender and juicy it will be. Prime beef is also usually from younger animals because older will always be tougher (just ask grumpy old men everywhere).
Tri-tip is part of the bottom of the sirloin and is widely considered a tougher cut, though as you’ll find out, it can be as tender as butter. The California tri-tip legend dates from the Wild West days when it was given to the lowly cowboys by their rancher bosses because it was considered a lesser cut. So these culinary cowboys created a rub and grilling technique that resulted in flavorful, tender meat and voila! Santa Maria style barbecue tri-tip was born.
I used to barbeque tri-tip with little more than garlic, salt and pepper. But I stumbled upon Chef John’s recipe for Santa Maria style tri-tip at his fantastic blog, Food Wishes, and my world forever changed. My recipe has evolved over the years and is now different to Chef John’s in a few ways.
First, I never salt red meat before barbecuing. Salting meat draws out the natural moisture within the meat, leading to a drier result. Drawing out that moisture while cooking means it will pool on the top of the meat, which steams it on the top while it flame grills on the bottom. Who wants a steamed steak? Not me.
My spices also are slightly different. I add oregano and ancho chili to the rub. Not sure where to find ancho chili? Look no further than your local Target or WalMart for a surprisingly dazzling array of spices, including smoked paprika, which I find to be invaluable to the resulting barbequed flavor.
I also avoid vegetable oils like canola, corn, sunflower and safflower, so I use olive oil instead of vegetable oil for basting. I highly recommend you do too for a variety of health benefits.
As Chef John says, don’t be afraid of the blackening process. There is no sugar in either the rub or the basting sauce so you’ll avoid that icky burned flavor that happens when there’s sugar present.
Tri-tip is great to make for a variety of preferences because the tips will be well-done for those squeamish folks in your life, then medium further in, and close to rare on the very inside. If you’re like me and enjoy those medium rare/rare pieces, be sure to take your tri-tip off the grill once your thermometer reads 125F in the middle.
Let it rest for 5-10 minutes, during which time it will cook a little more and reabsorb some of those gorgeous juices it released when it first came off the barbecue. If you want everything a little more done, remove it when it’s at 130F (yes, 5 degrees really makes that big a difference!).
As you purists might note from my photos, I used a gas grill. Please don’t judge me. I wholeheartedly agree that grilling over charcoal or wood tastes much better, but actually this recipe works very well on a gas grill. I suspect the smokiness from the smoked paprika helps me cheat my way to smoky goodness, so gas grillers, take heart!
1 Tbsp dried rosemary
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp dried garlic granules
1 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ancho chili pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/8 cup olive oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
Mix your dry rub together and coat your tri-tip all over. Unlike the sophisticated Chef John, I use my hands to get in all the nooks and crannies to make sure it’s thickly coated all the way around. Then set covered in your refrigerator for a few hours (or overnight) to marinate. Take out a half hour before you’re ready to begin grilling and let it ease toward room temperature. Please don’t trim the visible fat off the tri-tip! It’s good for you, delicious and helps to lubricate the roast while on the barbecue.
Meanwhile heat your grill to hot-hot-hot and mix up the basting sauce.
Place your tri-tip on the grill, baste the top of it then close the barbecue lid for 4 minutes. When time is up, turn the tri-tip then baste it again. You’ll continue this every 4 minutes for 15-20 minutes, until you reach either 125F or 130F, at which time you’ll need to promptly remove the tri-tip and allow it to rest for at least 5 minutes.
It’s always at this critical point — when something needs to come off the grill — that my dogs and free ranging chickens join forces to try to trip me and grab a bite. I swear they are in cahoots together as they do their best to weave around my feet, looking up keenly at whatever I’m holding on to.
Today I averted disaster, and ta-da! Our legendary culinary cowboy creation survives the conniving critters to become a flavorful, satisfying dinner (how’s that for some alliteration?).