Smoked Tri-Tip – The Ultimate Guide

Tri-tip is a steak cut that comes from the bottom sirloin (the upper hip of the cow). The name comes from its triangular shape and it having 3 tips. The cut is a steak but is frequently compared to brisket. The great difference is that tri-tip takes much less effort to cook, but it is still just as tender and delicious.

We love tri-tip for this reason. It has that great flavor, but it doesn´t need all the cooking time that other tougher cuts do. Tri-tip can be smoked, grilled, or even roasted in the oven, so it is very versatile. Of course of favorite way is smoked, which is the method we will show you. 

Tri tip
Santa Maria-style Tri-Tip

Tri-tip may be the most familiar in the Southern California region. It’s said that it was there where it was first prepared as a steak in the 50s. Due to this, you might have heard of tri-tip as the “Santa Maria steak”. In Argentinian asado, you might find it as “colita de cuadril”, or in Brazilian churrasco as “maminha”. Other names include “triangle tip” or “triangle steak.”

However you might know it, we’ll show you an easy method to prepare it, which has 3 main stages: 

  1. Seasoning to add flavor
  2. Smoking the meat to the desired point
  3. Searing the cut to lock in all the juices 

So if you are ready to start, continue reading to learn how to make Tri-Tip with the reverse sear method. 

The Reverse Sear Method for Tri-Tip 

To make a great Tri-Tip, just follow these simple steps and make your personal adjustments as you see fit:

1. Select

The first step is always selecting a good cut to make sure the time you spend cooking is worth the while. Always looks for your cut to have good marbling (internal fat) to make sure it is a slice of quality meat.

If you are not from California, it may be hard to find tri-tip in stores, although some do carry it. So ask your butcher for the cut in advance, or you can also use sirloin steak instead. If you are buying untrimmed, the cuts may be around 4-6 pounds. When trimmed, they will weigh somewhere between 2-4 pounds. As a general rule of thumb for our BBQs, we assume people will eat half a pound of meat each.

2. Trim

Tri-tip may be smoked trimmed or untrimmed. People who leave the fat cap like the fact that the fat will render and bathe the meat as it smokes. However, our method for tri-tip is not as long as for other cuts, so there is not much time for the fat to render. Given this, we prefer to cut off all the silver skin and trim down the fat as much as possible. Some fat will be ok, just make sure to remove any big chunks. In the end, you should have a clean-looking, triangular shape cut. 

3. Season

For a traditional Santa Maria style rub, try the following recipe (enough for a 4-pound tri-tip): 

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Just mix the ingredients in a bowl, and apply generously to the meat. To help adhere the rub, you can use a neutral oil as a binder. We don´t recommend using yellow mustard for tri-tp. 

If you want to change the recipe slightly, you can try using a wet rub by adding:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
  • 4 cloves crushed garlic

To apply the wet rub, mix all the ingredients with the tri-tip in a large ziplock bag. Remove the air, close it, and let it marinate.  

Whether you choose dry or wet, let the meat season for at least 4 hours. If you can leave it overnight in the fridge, do so. 

4. Smoke

When you are ready to start cooking, prepare your smoker to reach a stable temperature between 225°F to 300°F. If you don’t have a smoker, check our guide on how to smoke on a charcoal or gas grill

Before you start the smoker, take the meat out from the fridge. You want to start cooking at room temperature, not cold. This might take 30-40 minutes. 

For a traditional Santa Maria-style tri-tip, the most common wood to use is red oak. But you can also use cherry or other fruity wood. 

Once your smoker is at the desired temperature, put the tri-tip in and close the smoker. Check it until you reach the desired internal temperature. This will depend on how rare or well done you like your meat: 

  • Rare: 115-120°F
  • Medium-Rare: 125-130°F
  • Medium: 135-140°F
  • Medium-Well: 145-150°F
  • Well Done: 150-155°F

For tri-tip, we like it medium-rare to medium, but it is up to you. Just rememeber to cook it at least to the safe minimum temperature. We recommend using a meat thermometer for this. Always remember to insert the thermometer into the thickest part of your cut. 

How long should this take? Well, it depends on your cooking temperature and your desired doneness. If you are cooking at a low temp of 225°F looking for medium-rare, it should take somewhere between 60 to 90 minutes. 

Remember that the meat will continue to cook when you take it out, so aim to be 5°F below your goal. 

5. Sear

The next step is to sear the tri-tip. The goal of the sear is to form a crust to the meat and seal it quickly. For this, the temperature must be really high. In many cuts, you sear first and then cook. Note that we are doing a reverse sear method. 

You have 2 options to do this:

  • On a Cast-Iron Skillet: Preheat a cast-iron skillet. Make sure the heat is high. You can add a little butter to the skillet and let it melt. Then, place the tri-tip and let it sear for 2 to 3 minutes per side. 
  • On your Grill or Smoker: Increase the grill/smoker temperature to 450°F – 500°F. Remember your meat is out at this point. Once the high temperature is reached, put the tri-tip back and sear roast for 3 to 4 minutes per side. If you did wet rub, you can use the extra marinade mixture to baste the tri-tip as you place it and then turn it. 

After searing, your final internal temperature should have increased. It should be 5-10°F above or where it was when you finished smoking on step 4. 

6. Rest

As with any meat, resting is super important. This allows the fats and juices to redistribute into the meat. So take the tri-tip out, and let it rest at least 15 minutes before slicing it. 

7. Slice

Tri-tip is also like brisket in that its meat grains run in 2 different directions. So you just can´t slice it all the same. See the image below to use a guide of how the grains run (white lines):

Tri Tip Anatomy
Guide to Slice Tri-Tip

Once you identified the change in direction in your tri-tip, you can cut the tri-tip into 2 pieces (thick black line). Then slice against its grain (black dash lines). 

The Bottom Line

With this easy method, you will have an amazing Santa Maria-style tri-tip ready to be enjoyed. You can try several ways, but our favorite dishes are served as:

  • Sandwiches, accompanied with some caramelized onions, mushrooms or maybe a homemade BBQ sauce 
  • A steak, with some side dishes like pinquito beans or a salad

If you are looking for more alternatives for your next Sunday Grill, check out our Guide on Homemade Bacon.

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