This Santa Maria style tri tip steak recipe explains the authentic way to prepare the dish with adjustments for different grills and the oven.
Disclosure: Swift Meats compensated me for this recipe.
You know a dish has to be good when there is a special grill designated for cooking it. If you don’t have a Santa Maria style grill, don’t worry. I’m going to show you how to cook a tri tip steak like they do in Santa Maria with some slight adaptations for any grill in any region of the world.
What is tri tip
Tri tip is a lean cut of beef that comes from the bottom of the sirloin primal, which is located near the rear of the cow.
It is shaped like a triangle, which is how it got its name. Each 4-ounce serving only has 190 calories with 23 grams of protein.
Tri tip used to only be found on the West Coast, but thanks to brands like Swift Meats, this cut is now available throughout the U.S.
I stand behind Swift Meats because not only does it taste great, but they are committed to sustainability and animal welfare. As a Master of Beef Advocate, I appreciate that Swift has a goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
For example, they have already found a way to convert methane gas into clean, renewable natural gas at a hog facility in Texas. Now that’s progress.
As a California native, it was important for me to learn about the state’s most popular style of barbecue and live fire cooking – Santa Maria style.
To understand the history and methods of this style of cooking, I traveled to Santa Maria Valley and learned firsthand from Frank Ostini, the owner of the Hitching Post, one of California’s most authentic Santa Maria style barbecue restaurants.
Santa Maria Valley, California, is located between LA and San Francisco near the coast of the Pacific Ocean. When natives and early settlers prepared Spanish style feasts, they turned to the area’s natural resources.
A predominant resource was red oak, which was burned to hot coals and used to prepare a variety of dishes, including sirloin that was seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic.
Over time, in addition to using the top sirloin, chefs began grilling the tri tip, following the same method.
Setting up your grill
Authentic Santa Maria style barbecue starts with red oak logs. Red oak may be a little challenging to find, so you can substitute it with white or post oak logs or wood chunks or oak lump charcoal.
In Santa Maria, chefs cook on a grill that has an adjustable grate that can be raised and lowered over the red oak coals. Fortunately, I have a couple of these in the backyard.
There’s no exact temp when cooking on a grill like this. Instead, hold your hand at the grill grate and aim for a heat that allows you to hold your hand there for 5-6 seconds, until it gets too hot. That’s roughly 325-350F degrees.
If you don’t have a Santa Maria style grill, that’s okay.
For instance, when using a kettle grill, adjust the vents, so the temperature is about 325-350F degrees and cook over an indirect cooking area following the recipe.
When using a ceramic grill, add the ceramic plate to diffuse the heat and get the temperature to 325-350F degrees.
If you have a pellet grill, simply set the temp to 325F degrees, using oak pellets.
Lastly, if you’re cooking with gas, adjust one burner so the grill temperature reaches 325-350F degrees and cook the meat over the indirect zone. Add a foil pouch with oak wood chips to the grill to get some smoke flavor.
If you’re cooking in an oven, add 1 tsp liquid smoke to the garlic oil and set the temp to 325F. Place the tri tip on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Then, follow the rest of the steps, including the frequent flipping and basting. I do recommend raising the temp right at the end to help form a crust. See the recipe below for details.
If you’re cooking with oak logs or chunks, Ostini shared that oak has a strong flavor if it smolders, so it’s important to let the wood burn down for 30-60 minutes. Then, when adding more wood, place it on the fire gently, so the air continues to circulate freely.
Tri tip seasoning
What’s beautiful about Santa Maria style tri tip is that the beef is the star. The meat is not covered with an overdose of seasoning. It’s simply sprinkled with salt, pepper and granulated garlic.
As you master the recipe and technique, add your own twists and flavor flairs or try your favorite beef rub, like my Brisket Rub. But try this method at least once. I think you’ll be impressed.
In addition to the seasoning, Ostini bastes his tri tip often with garlic oil and red wine vinegar. He taught me to heat corn oil to 225F degrees and to steep smashed garlic in the oil for one to two hours. This allows the garlic’s essential oils to fuse with the corn oil.
Once the garlic oil is ready, stir in the red wine vinegar. You can add red pepper flakes too, if you like more heat.
Forget everything you learned about flipping steak
All my life, I was told to only flip a steak once, so you don’t lose the juices, and to sear steak to lock in the juices. Turns out, both of those methods are wrong – at least in Santa Maria.
According to Anthony Endy, another Santa Maria style pitmaster (who, oh by the way, beat Bobby Flay in a tri tip showdown), if you sear a steak, you will lock the seasonings on the outside, which doesn’t allow them to absorb into the center of the meat.
Endy and Ostini both recommend barely getting a sear on the steak and basting it right away with the garlic oil and vinegar. As it’s cooking, the heat will start to push the juices up to the top surface of the steak.
Just before the juices peek through, flip the steak. This keeps them locked in. Then, baste it again and repeat the process over and over, until the internal temperature reaches 130F degrees.
Throughout the cook, the juices are now circulating back and forth while pulling in the seasoning, basting liquid and smoke, flavoring the meat completely.
How to slice a tri tip steak
All right. At this point, you have almost mastered the Santa Maria style tri tip steak. Don’t blow it now.
Let your steak rest for 15 minutes. You worked so hard to lock in those juices, don’t let them rush out on your cutting board.
Above all, as with all steaks, it’s important to slice the meat against the grain. This will create the most tender bite.
The grain on a tri tip runs two different ways. In the longer, thinner section, the grain runs toward the tip. In the thicker portion, the grain curves a different direction. Look at the picture above, for an example.
Slicing against the grain means that instead of placing your knife blade in the same direction as the grain, you’ll turn it 90 degrees. With each slice, the meat will break away naturally at the grain, creating super tenderness.
Swift Meats has been “making the cut” since 1855. If you follow this method, your tri tip steak will be as Swift always says: “Delicious. Every Time.”
Santa Maria Tri Tip Steak
This Santa Maria style tri tip steak recipe explains the authentic way to prepare the dish with adjustments for different grills and the oven
Prep the Meat: Remove the meat from the packaging and pat dry. Trim away any excess silver skin or fat.
Garlic Oil: Place the oil in a bowl and microwave for 2 minutes. Add the smashed garlic and let steep for 1 hour while you heat the grill. Stir in the vinegar.
Light the Grill: Heat your grill to 325F degrees with red oak, creating an indirect heat zone.
Seasoning: Combine the seasoning ingredients in a small bowl or shaker.
Grill: Place the meat on the heated grill. Immediately, baste with the garlic oil and sprinkle liberally with the seasoning. Grill for 15 minutes.
Flip and Baste: Flip. Baste and season again. Cook for 10 minutes. Flip. Baste again. Cook for 5 minutes. Flip. Baste again. Continue this flip and baste process until the internal temperature of the tri tip is 130F degrees.
Rest and Slice: Remove from the grill and let rest for 15 minutes. Slice against the grain.
Prepare in an Oven
Add 1 tsp of liquid smoke to the garlic oil. Set your oven to 325F degrees. Place the tri tip on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Cook following the baste and flip method above. After the first three flips, raise the oven temp to 425F. Continue basting and flipping every 5 minutes, until it reaches 130F degrees.