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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, tender cut of beef that comes from the bottom of the sirloin, 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.
Even though it’s from the sirloin, it shouldn’t be confused with a sirloin steak. Those are cut from the top of the sirloin.
Tri tip used to only be found on the West Coast, but thanks to brands like Swift Meats, this cut is now available at grocery stores 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.
Disclosure: Swift Meats compensated me for this recipe.
History of Santa Maria Tri Tip
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 barbecue.
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.
Look for tri tip roast. This will be the full triangular cut. Costco usually carries tri tip. It may be packaged with two roasts per package. You can cook them both or freeze one for later.
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 a spice blend of salt, pepper and granulated garlic or garlic powder. I also add a layer of my award-winning Brisket Rub.
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.
- Corn oil
- Fresh garlic
- Red wine vinegar
How to set 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 you can use oak lump charcoal and add red oak wood chips.
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 charcoal grill like 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. Or follow this recipe for grilled tri tip on a gas grill.
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.
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.
No matter the cut of beef, 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 cook a Santa Maria style tri tip steak
- STEP ONE: Remove the meat from the packaging and pat it dry with paper towels. Trim away any excess silver skin or fat. Season it all over with the tri tip seasoning, and let it rest at room temperature while you prep the oil and grill.
PRO TIP: When Frank Ostini cooks tri tip, he puts the steak on the grill with no seasoning. Then, he bastes it and adds dry rub throughout the cook. Chef Anthony Endy prefers brining his tri tip. I like to season it before I light the grill for a quick dry brine. Play around with the techniques and come up with your preferred method.
- STEP TWO: Place the oil in a bowl and microwave for 2 minutes. Add the smashed garlic and let it steep for at least one hour. Then, stir in the vinegar. As a quick alternative, you can also place the basting ingredients in a pot and place it on the grill.
PRO TIP: For added flavor, use an herb brush for basting. Using butcher’s twine, tie together fresh herbs like rosemary, parsley and thyme. For easier handling, tie the herbs to a spatula handle.
- STEP THREE: Heat your grill to 325F with red oak, creating an indirect heat zone.
- STEP FOUR: Place the meat on the grill and immediately baste with the garlic oil. Grill for 15 minutes.
- STEP FIVE: Flip and baste. Cook for 10 more minutes. Flip. Baste again. Cook for 5 minutes. Continue the flip and baste process until the internal temperature reaches 130F degrees for medium rare. The total cooking time will take about 45 minutes.
PRO TIP: For accurate results, use a digital instant-read thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the Santa Maria steak. Insert the meat thermometer into the side of the steak at the thickest part of the roast.
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 meat 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 in different directions. 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.
You can choose to thinly slice it or to slice it into thicker pieces. The thinner slices are great for sandwiches, especially with a smear of horseradish sauce.
No matter how you slice it, baste the sliced pieces one more time with the garlic oil and sprinkle with sea salt and fresh herbs.
Leftover grilled Santa Maria tri-tip steak can be saved in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. You can freeze it for up to six months.
It’s delicious cold with a drizzle of chimichurri or spoonful of pico de gallo. Or, you can slowly reheat it in the microwave, toaster oven or in a skillet. Leftover tri tip is also great in chili or tacos.
GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips
Frequently Asked Questions
It won’t be as authentic as tri tip cooked over red oak, but it’s a decent alternative. 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.
Santa Maria is a city in Central California about 160 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s about 35 miles from the Pacific Ocean coast.
The area has very rich soil, which has made it an ideal location for plant and animal farming. Today, it’s known for its wineries and barbecue, but it also has a rich history of cave art from the Chumash people who were the first people who inhabited the area. To learn more about Santa Maria, visit the Santa Maria Valley online.
It’s not traditionally spicy, but you can control the seasonings. If you like spice, add a little cayenne pepper to the seasoning blend. If you prefer for it to be mild, leave the cayenne out.
Side dishes to serve with Tri Tip
More Tri Tip recipes
- Champion Chili Recipe with Smoked Tri-Tip
- Tri Tip on a Gas Grill
- Barrel House Cooker Reverse Seared Tri-Tip
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Santa Maria Tri Tip Steak
- 1 Swift Meats tri tip steak
Tri tip Seasoning
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp granulated garlic
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, optional
- 1/4 cup corn oil
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- pinch salt
- Prep the Meat: Remove the meat from the packaging and pat dry. Trim away any excess silver skin or fat.
- Seasoning: Combine the seasoning ingredients in a small bowl or shaker. Sprinkle over the entire tri tip.
- Garlic Oil: Place the oil in a bowl and microwave for 2 minutes. Add the smashed garlic and let steep while you heat the grill. Stir in the vinegar and salt.
- Light the Grill: Heat your grill to 325F degrees with red oak, creating an indirect heat zone.
- Grill: Place the meat on the heated grill. Immediately, baste with the garlic oil. Grill for 15 minutes.
- Flip and Baste: Flip. Baste 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 OvenAdd 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.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.