Let’s start by dispelling a big beef myth: The cut has to be expensive to be tender, juicy and delicious. Not true! Miracles have happened with the cheaper cuts of beef, such as chuck tenders and eyes, flatiron steaks and tri-tip steaks. What makes these cuts less expensive than their tenderloin cousins is that they have more muscle and less fat. And it’s the fat that gives a piece of meat its flavor.
There’s always a way around a more muscular piece of meat to bring out its beefy flavor and make it more tender, and tri-tip is no exception. Heat up the grill, bring out the rubs, flavorings or marinades, and get started!
Considering the Source
The tri-tip is cut from the bottom of the sirloin sub-primal region of a steer or heifer ‒ in other words, toward the rump. Unlike the top sirloin, its more tender neighbor farther up the side, during the life of the cow, the bottom sirloin was a worker bee. Hence, that section formed more muscles, and less fat ran through the meat.
At one time, the tri-tip was relegated to the mincer and turned into hamburger meat. Today, chefs like to use the cut in casseroles because of its low fat content as do the championship chili cooks. The less fat, the less to siphon off from the pot as it pools at the top.
The triangular shape of the tri-tip makes it versatile. Those who prefer well-done meat can eat the tips, which are thinner. The body, cooked medium-rare, pleases diners who prefer a meatier cut of beef. When you serve a tri-tip, everyone at the table is happy.
The Birth of Santa Maria Steak
Sometime in the 1950s, a rancher in California, Otto Schaefer of the Schaefer Ranch, discovered the cut’s true value, which led to the tri-tip becoming known as “Santa Maria steak” throughout the state. Otto loved steak, but he didn’t love the price of the better cuts. Since he often entertained, he needed a less expensive beef to prepare for his guests.
Taking the moderately priced tri-tip, Otto rubbed it with his favorite seasonings, grilled the steak until it was medium-rare, let the meat sit for 15 minutes, and then cut it across the grain. A star was born.
Friends from nearby Santa Maria glombed onto the recipe and started grilling their own tri-tips “Santa Maria style,” and the name stuck. Salt is always a given when seasoning a steak, and you can always add your favorites as well. As the residents of Santa Maria soon learned, any seasoning that’s acid-based, such as citrus or the soy in teriyaki sauce, lends itself to tenderizing a lean piece of meat.
Grilling a Tri-Tip
The tri-tip is not a steak, nor is it a roast, so cooking one is a bit different. Some grill chefs marinate the meat in an acid-based rub as a way to tenderize the meat. This works, but it also takes over the flavor of the beef. Because a tri-tip is lean, it doesn’t have a lot of flavor of its own, so make sure you like what you rub into your piece of beef before you do it! And if you use a commercial tenderizer, find one with minimal salt content.
Marinades containing soy sauce, ginger, Dijon mustard, honey or balsamic vinegar work well for tri-tip. Just make your preferred formula, put it in a zip-lock bag along with the meat, and place it in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours. Any longer will start to break down the meat.
When you’re ready to grill, bring the meat to room temperature as you prepare your wood or gas grill. Otto Schaefer used oak as his wood base, and the hearty essence of oak pairs well with the meat. Absent an oak tree in your yard, use non-fruit wood, a gas grill or charcoal.
Once the grill is ready, sear it on one side for about 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of your meat. Flip it over and continue for another 5 minutes. The outside of the meat should be dark and crispy while the inside is cooked to medium-rare perfection, according to your digital thermometer.
Turn the flame to low, and let it slowly grill for another 25 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 130 Fahrenheit, for medium-rare; and 135‒145F for medium. If you don’t have a thermometer, use the finger test.
The Finger Test
- Open your hand, palm facing upward. Relax the hand.
- Press your forefinger to your thumb and poke the fleshy part of your hand that’s below the thumb. That’s what rare should feel like.
- Do the same with your middle finger. The fleshy part is a bit firmer, which is what medium-rare feels like.
- As you move around your hand, the fleshy part becomes firmer, and so does your steak. Most diners and meat purists prefer medium-rare as the juices are plenty and the flavor is exceptional. More cooking, less flavor.
Let the steak sit for about 15 minutes before slicing it. Starting at one tip, slice against the grain until you reach the body of the meat. Turn it around to get to the non-grainy side and continue slicing. Use a cutting board with cutouts at the edges to collect the juices. After you’ve finished slicing the roast, place it on a platter and pour the juices over.
Tri-Tip in the Oven
Grilling isn’t the only way to make a juicy and tender tri-tip. The oven can work its magic just as well, and it may even be better: Slow braising a piece of beef allows it to absorb the juices surrounding it. The longer it’s braised, the more tender the meat becomes.
If you know ahead of time that you’re going to braise your tri-tip, ask the butcher for one with the fat side attached and have him trim the muscular side.
- Place a Dutch oven or roasting pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of regular olive oil to the bottom. Heat the oil on medium until it’s wavy.
- Place the tri-tip in the pan, fat-side down and sear until it releases itself from the bottom of the pot.
- Flip the roast over; turn the heat to low, and add 3/4-cup beef broth and 1/4-cup red wine.
- Simmer for at least one hour or 15 minutes per pound.
- Alternate method: Remove it from the stovetop and place in a 350F oven. Roast for 2 hours. Test for doneness.
You can use these same techniques for other less-expensive cuts of beef as well and still have juicy and tender meat.