I had never really heard of tri-tip before -- I just knew it was some cut of beef. I kept hearing the words "Santa Maria Tri-Tip" so after some research I discovered that the meat had become a local speciality in the city of Santa Maria, which is located just north of Santa Barbara and closer to central California. Traditionally, tri-tip is grilled over red oak wood.
So what exactly is tri-tip? Well, it's the bottom of sirloin -- very lean, low-fat, and low-collagen. Unlike the brisket, you won't find a marbling of fat running through the meat. When grilled to perfection, tri-tip should be medium rare, sliced thinly across the grain, and full of juice and flavor. If you've ever wondered how to make smoked tri-tip, read on.
It can be a bit tricky find tri-tip at your local market. Depending on the grocery store, you may not get the best quality. Personally, I like to pay a little more for USDA Choice at my local Costco warehouse. They're not exactly cheap at $6.99/lb. But there's almost 4 pounds of meat per pack. Remember, this isn't like brisket where about half of the weight will disappear because of all that fat and cooking shrinkage.
Once out of the plastic wrap, I actually don't do too much trimming to them. If there are some pieces of fat that you don't like, feel free to trim. But since there is such little fat to begin with, a little bit will give some flavor. This is what one of those triangular-shaped (hence, the term tri-tip) pieces look like.
At this point, choose your favorite rub, sprinkle liberally, and give that tri-tip meat a good massage. You could follow the guidelines from my rub recipe, keep it simple using salt and pepper, or try one of the many pre-made, flavored rubs out in the market. I had a couple of samples from Char Crust and thought that this would be a great opportunity to try them out.
I gave each of the flavors a sample taste, and I definitely liked how the Original Hickory Grilled dry-rub seasoning gave a subtle, yet not overpowering, flavor profile. The roasted garlic peppercorn would also work well, but I had a feeling it would be best used on some NY or ribeye steak.
Click here for a detailed review on my experience with Char Crust.
After you've given the tri-tip a good rubdown, you can either put it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight to let the flavors meld together. But, there's really no need. Just let the meat sit at room temperature for a bit while you fire up the smoker.
I forgot to take a picture of the tri-tip in the smoker (it was raining outside!), but all I did was use one chimney starter's worth of charcoal for my Weber Smoker. Since I didn't have any oak or red oak wood, I just used a few chunks of hickory and apple wood. I set the temperature to about 250-275 degrees F. All it took was about 1 hour until the internal temperature of the tri-tip reached 130-135 degrees. Then, it was time to sear the meat on both sides on a cast iron grill.
After searing the tri-tip about couple of minutes per side, I was already beginning to drool. The aroma from that crust forming on the grill is absolutely one of the best smells ever. I needed to wait about 15-30 minutes afterwards so that all the juices could redistribute. As you know (or should know now!), cutting into meat right off the grill is a big no-no. All the meat juices would bleed out and you're left with is dry and flavorless rubber in the end.
But, your patience will pay off. After making sure to slice against the grain of the tri-tip, the inside of the meat was a perfect medium rare -- just the way I like it. You can see from the picture that the meat is cooked but still has that pink, juicy center. The dry rub from Char Crust imparted a distinct flavor that was neither too salty nor overpowering -- the hickory smoke subtly complimented the meat. At this point, the only thing left to do was to find the best way to devour all this tri-tip. Personally, I like to throw the slices back on the grill for a few seconds, add some BBQ sauce, and make a tri-tip sandwich. Yum!