Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Make BBQ Smoked Tri-Tip

By Dru Chai

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!


  1. Hi, Just found your blog. I was wondering if it would be better to sear the meat and then smoke it? I have always heard that you should sear first then cook. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Chad, that's a great question. Just based on my experience, from talking to people, and reading online -- searing first does not necessarily lock/seal in the juices. My tr-tip came out nice and juicy and I seared the meat at the end.

      In searing the tri-tip after smoking, you get that charred and caramelized crust while still maintaining a nice, juicy pink center. If you sear the tri-tip first, then smoke it for an hour, you will lose that tasty crust.

      Thanks for reading, and hope that answers your question!


  2. Thanks for the reply. I thought about it after I posted and came to the same conclusion. I live in Michigan so I'm not sure how available this cut is. I will have to check around. Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Tri-tip might also be labeled as "bottom sirloin" at the butcher shop. Hopefully, you'll be able to find some in your area. But whatever you do, don't buy those vacuum-sealed, pre-marinated ones. Yuck!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks! Yeah, nice and medium rare, just the way I like it :)

  4. Dru just found your blog and am now very excited to try your tri-tip smoke. Have you ever tried searing it off on a grill after?

    Also when you seared it did it change your internal temp much? I just want to make sure that I shouldn't smoke it to just below med-rare and then sear it up to med-rare.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I seared the tri-tip on the cast iron grill, so I would think searing it on an gas/charcoal grill would work just as well. I'm sure the charcoal grill would impart even more smoky flavor on the outside.

      I wouldn't sear it more than a minute or two max on each side, just to get some good caramelization. It didn't change the internal temp much, just the outer edges as it turned more grey in color (as you can see in the pictures of the sliced tri-tip). As long as you leave the inside medium rare, with a nice juicy pink color, you're all good.

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment!


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