Tri-Tip Steak: Tips from the Butcher

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What is Tri-Tip?

The shape gives it the name! The tri-tip is a triangular cut of beef that comes from the bottom sirloin of the hindquarter. It is one of two muscles in the bottom sirloin; the other is the bavette steak. Both are unique in their own way.

The bavette is larger and tapered on both ends weighing about 3 ½ to 4 pounds. As a butcher, I feel the Bavette is best to be cut thinner and treated just like a skirt steak. Tri-tip, on the other hand, is smaller and weighs 2 to 3 pounds. Tapered on one end, it is best prepared whole. Though different, both are highly marbled and delicious.

Diagram of all beef cuts from a cow

Tri-tip steak is always on my menu when I’m hosting a bbq for a large crowd. Everybody loves a grilled steak! The best thing about serving tri-tip is the different levels of doneness you can achieve. The smaller tapered end might be more medium, while the thicker end is more medium-rare.

Tri-tip is also a less expensive piece of meat than other steaks like ribeye or strip, yet is still tender and has a nice, beefy flavor. It’s such an underrated steak! Since there are only two tri-tips on an entire cow and may not be popular where you live, you might have to source out a good butcher shop. Ask the butcher if you can order it in advance.

Photo of raw tri-tip steak

History of Tri-Tip

Tri-tip first became popular sometime in the 1950s in Santa Maria, California. It is also known as “California’s Cut” or “Santa Maria Steak”. There are regions in the states that are known for different types of barbecue. Texas has brisket, the Carolinas have pork, and California has the tri-tip. That’s what is so great about barbecue… you can travel around our beautiful country and discover so many unique styles and flavors, all done with such great passion.

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Years ago, when I was an apprentice meat cutter, we would receive fresh hanging quarters of beef and would break them down into smaller primal cuts for retail sale. Back then, we would not go after these cuts. We didn’t even know about them! Instead, this meat would end up in trimmings for ground beef or cut for beef stew. Little did we know what we were missing out on. Today, when we break down a hindquarter of beef, we separate all these different muscles. The bottom sirloin cuts are now very desirable and sometimes hard to find, unless of course, you know a good butcher.

How to trim tri-tip

Some tri-tips may be sold untrimmed with a fat cap on one side. I prefer to remove all the fat so you can get a nice charred crust on all sides. Before you season, look at how the grain of the meat runs. You’ll notice the grain slightly changes direction at the thickest part, so keep that in mind for later when slicing against the grain.

Photo of raw tri-tip steak with fat cap on top

How to cook tri-tip

My favorite way to make tri-tip is to first lightly brush it entirely with olive oil then season it with Dead Rooster’s Black Gold dry rub. Black Gold has that perfect combination of spicy and sweet, with a hint of coffee flavor. It’s perfect on large cuts of beef like tri-tip. Let the cut sit out at room temperature for about an hour and then fire up your grill.

For this cut, I prefer a charcoal grill with a two-zone fire, meaning coals on one side for direct cooking and empty on the other side for indirect cooking. Once your grill is up to medium temp (350-375 degrees), place the tri-tip directly over the coals and sear on all sides. This may take 10 to 15 minutes. Once you get a beautiful sear, move the tri-tip to the indirect side of the grill until it has reached your preferred doneness. I like to grill mine until it reaches an internal temperature of 130-135 degrees using an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness.

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Photo of tri-tip steak on a charcoal grill

The next step is the most important: let it rest! Pull the tri-tip off the grill and place it on a cutting board and tent it with foil for about 10 minutes. This will allow all juices to slow down and redistribute inside.

Photo of cooked tri-tip steak on a cutting board

How to slice tri-tip

Once cooked, the tri-tip cut must be sliced across the grain to achieve the best tenderness. Remember how the grain runs through the meat from when you prepped, and slice against that grain. Once you slice, it’s time to enjoy this incredible cut of meat!

Photo of cooked and sliced tri-tip steak

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>