Butcher preparing fresh meat on cutting board
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You’ve likely seen tri-tip steak at your local butcher or meat counter and its price is appealing. But you don't know how to cook it -- with or without the fat cap. Take the plunge and grab this hidden gem -- it has a huge amount of flavor for a lower price than you’d pay for more well-known cuts. Just follow a few basic guidelines for the perfect preparation.

The Cold Facts

Because there are only two tri-tips per cow, the cut is one of the lesser-known steaks. As it’s not well-known, your butcher might have labeled it something intentionally appealing like "California cut" or "Newport steak" -- or the more ambiguous "sirloin tip" or "sirloin butt." A highly-marbled steak, the overall fat content is low, which means it can easily dry out or be tough if overcooked. If prepared correctly, though, tri-tip packs a juicy punch rivaling any of the fancier steak selections.

It's All About the Fat

The beauty of a great tri-tip comes in its balanced fat content. As the overall amount of fat in the meat is low, it's a healthful option, and perfect for quick-fired cooking techniques like broiling or grilling. The fat it does have is marbled throughout the meat, making it juicy and flavorful when cooked correctly. Like many cuts of meat, it is also sold with or without an extra layer of fat on one side, which is called a fat cap. In the case of tri-tip, this fat layer can be up to 1/2 inch thick.

To Trim or Not to Trim

Never buy a tri-tip untrimmed that you’re planning on trimming. If you are charged a higher price per pound for the butcher doing the trimming it will be countered by the weight savings. When deciding whether to cook tri-tip trimmed or untrimmed, it boils down to how you’re going to cook it. If you're cooking on a stove or in the oven, leave the fat cap on, cooking the meat fat-side-up -- the fat layer will render during cooking and baste the meat as it cooks, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, that rendered fat is a potential grill flare-up waiting to happen, so if you’re planning on grilling your tri-tip, trimmed is the way to go.

Whatever You Do, Do It Quickly

Tri-tip’s marbled goodness is undeniable – but it’s also fleeting when overcooked. Whether you go with a trimmed cut on the grill or an untrimmed broiling, take special care not to leave any tri-tip on the heat for more than absolutely necessary. Stick with a rare or medium rare preparation and you’ll find this affordable cut of meat to be a juicy choice for any occasion.