Prepared properly, tri tip offers up many the flavors and textures that grilled beef lovers crave -- a rich beefy and buttery taste, a kiss of smoke, a crusty exterior and melt in your mouth juiciness in the center -- all in an inexpensive beef cut. Traditionally, tri tips are cooked over smoldering red oak wood chunks on Santa Maria-style grills -- which are basically a large fire box or pit over which a heavy metal grate is hung. You can, however, get a nice, smoky barbecue taste and aroma for your tri tip on a propane grill by adding woodchips in a smoker box or pouch to the hot grilling grate.
Remove the tri tip from the refrigerator, then season it to taste with flavors like minced fresh garlic and a liberal application of salt and pepper. Allow the tri tip to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour. For deeper flavor, you can also let the seasoned meat rest in the refrigerator overnight up to 24 hours, but be sure to allow it to come to room temperature again before cooking.
Pat the tri tip dry using paper towel. Try, however, to keep as much seasoning as possible adhered to the meat.
Soak smoking wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes.
Place soaked wood chips into a smoker box or an aluminum foil pouch poked with holes using a fork or skewer.
Light the grill and turn all burners to high. Preheat the grill for at least 15 minutes.
Clean the grill grate using a wire grill brush.
Turn off the burners on one half of the grill, leaving the other half of the grill on high.
Place smoker box or aluminum foil pouch filled with the soaked wood chips on the cooking grate over the high heat side of the grill. Wait for the smoker box, or pouch, to begin smoking heavily before placing the tri tip on the grill.
Place the tri tip on cool side of grill for about 15 to 30 minutes. Move the tri tip to the high heat side when it reaches around 10 degrees below your desired level of doneness -- 115 degrees Fahrenheit for rare, 120 F for medium-rare, 130 F for medium or 145 F for medium-well as measured by a meat thermometer.
Sear the tri tip over the high heat part of the grill -- flipping frequently -- until well caramelized on both sides; this should take about 4 to 8 minutes.
Remove the tri tip from the grill onto a warmed platter and tent with foil. Allow the tri tip to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
Slice the tri tip thinly, against the grain, and serve with Santa Maria style salsa or the sauce of your choice.
- Santa Maria Valley BBQ: Introduction to Santa Maria Style Barbecue
- Sunset: The West's best unsung BBQ town
- Serious Eats: The Best Inexpensive Steak For The Grill Part 5: Tri-Tip
- The Reluctant Gourmet: Meat Doneness Chart
- Barbecue Bible.com: Buster’s Tri-Tip
- Foodsafety.gov: Minimum Safe Cooking Temperatures
- For an authentic Santa Maria result, use native California red oak chips. If you cannot find red oak chips, try or other types of oak, wine or whiskey oak barrels, grapevine cuttings or cherry wood chips.
- The United States Department of Agriculture recommends a minimum safe cooking temperature of 145 F with a 3-minute resting period before serving or slicing. This will, however, result in a dryer steak that is somewhere above medium. The choice is ultimately up to your comfort level and tastes.
Kurt Schrader has been writing professionally since 2005. He has also worked in the hospitality and travel industries for more than 10 years. Schrader holds a bachelor's degree in management, a master's degree in information studies and a Juris Doctor from Florida State University.