How to Cook a Tri-Tip without Ruining It

by tipsy on June 24, 2012

 

When I first moved to California's Central Coast many years ago, I was introduced to the Tri-tip. Tri-tip is a triangle-shaped cut of beef from the bottom of the sirloin. There are two per animal. When I temporarily moved away from California some time back, I found it is almost impossible to find tri-tip at the local market.

tri-tip

Tri-tip can be roasted, but most commonly it's grilled. It is wonderfully marbled with fat and if cooked properly, is a succulent, juicy piece of meat. Unfortunately, many of the "cowboys" around here don't know how to cook it without ruining it. They stab it, trim ever piece of external fat off, stuff it with garlic cloves, and constantly fiddle with it on the grill. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here's how to cook a tri-tip perfectly every time. Your guests will think you're a great cook, but this method involves doing less. Just remember - "less is more." (Repeat that over and over as you cook.)

Selecting Your Tri-tip

Tri-tips are usually available in "trimmed" or "untrimmed" versions. The untrimmed version has a thick layer of fat on one side, and is understandably cheaper by the pound. Some people leave the fat on, and some trim it off at home.

Also, when selecting the meat, look for nice, even marbling. There shouldn't be any section wider than your finger without the little lines of fat running through it.

Preparing to Cook a Tri-tip

Which is right? Trim the fat layer off or leave it on?

Well, it really is a lot of fat. And it causes flare-ups on the grill. My advice is to trim off most of the fat layer, but leave a little. When you cook it, place the fat layered side up. As the meat cooks, the fat will melt and baste the meat.

I have seen the local "cooks" randomly cover their tri-tip with all kinds of salt, pepper, garlic, Lawry's seasoned salt, you name it. Seasoning is good, but just arbitrarily throwing it on the tri-tip can ruin the meat's potential.

I've cooked literally hundreds of tri-tips over the years. Here is the best way to cook yours:

This is important: Take the tri-tip out of the refrigerator 2-4 hours before you cook it. It should be at room temperature when you grill it or roast it.

  • If your tri-tip doesn't have much marbling, you can use a very light sprinkling of Adolph's meat tenderizer - use Adolph's and not some cheap store brand. It's the real deal. Don't use too much though or your meat will get mushy. No one likes mushy meat.
  • Follow with Grizzly Joe's "Trail Dust" as a dry rub all over the meat - I've tried everything, this is the absolute best spice for tri-tip (and this is NOT a paid endorsement).
    • As a guide to how much rub - you should still be able to tell it's a tri-tip when you're done. You're not wrapping a present, just seasoning the meat.
  • Set the meat on a cookie sheet and let it reach room temperature. If you cook it when it's cold inside, you'll burn the outside and the inside will still be raw.

Not too hard right? But many backyard cooks have the habit of stabbing the meat and stuffing garlic inside. If you do this, the juice will just run out as you cook the meat, and it will be dry. Another thing I've seen is slathering the meat with oil, then pouring on the spices. The oil is not necessary. This meat is pretty fatty already. Just rub it, and leave it. The natural juices from the meat dissolve the salt and spices and pull that flavor into the meat as it waits for grilling.

Grilling the Tri-tip

I prefer grilled tri-tip over oven-cooked. I've done both and they are both excellent. Here we'll talk about grilling your tri-tip. (For my instructions on cooking tri-tip in the oven click here.)

Get the grill nice and hot. I shoot for around 400 degrees F. I have a gas grill with three burners. I start with the burners all on high. Once I'm ready to put the meat on, I set the left one on high, the middle one on low and the right one on low. Then I place the tri-tip, fat side up over the space between the center and right low burners. It will drip and flare up so don't put it right over the fire. This gives a nice indirect heat to the meat. The corners of the roast are thinner and cook quicker. It's easy to dry them out.

A lot of wanna-be cowboy grillers poke, and cut, and flip the meat over and over - then poke it again just for good measure. Never, ever stab the meat. Every hole you make lets more juice run out. Poking and flipping the meat should also be done as little as possible. Leave your meat alone! Let it cook. (Note: You can find yourself some good barbeque tongs at the very end of this post.)

I always flip the meat the exact same number of times for every tri-tip. ONCE. Flipping the meat does not help your meat cook sooner, or more evenly, or anything. It is just the sign of an impatient cook. There is only one reason to flip your meat over. To cook the other side. Do it one time - usually after about 15 minutes of cooking on the first side.

Once you've turned the tri-tip, and cooked it for 5 minutes or so, press the center to test the firmness. If it feels mushy like raw meat, you may need to raise the heat just a bit. Most people like their tri-tip pink in the middle. Medium to medium-rare. It should not be hard when you press on it. You are looking for about the same texture as the muscle in the palm of your hand just below your thumb.

Generally, about 25 to 30 minutes should be plenty for a tri-tip, depending on size of course.

Let Your Meat Rest

The meat will cook another 10 minutes or so when you take it off the grill. You need to let it rest. If you don't, you'll have dry, tough meat. Remember, you're cooking a muscle. When that muscle gets hot it contracts, squeezing the juice out of the center. When it's taken off the heat, it relaxes and the juices are drawn back into the center of the meat, making it juicy to eat.

Let the meat rest under a tinfoil tent on your cutting board for about 10-15 minutes.

Cutting Tri-tip

Tri-tip has a definite "grain" to the meat. Cut against the grain for best results. I like to cut the meat into steaks about 1/2 inch thick. Many people cut tri-tip very thin, which is good for sandwiches. But the real reason they cut it thin is because they've poked, stabbed, flipped, salted, and burned it into a hockey puck. The only way to eat a hockey puck is to cut it thin.

If you're tri-tip is juicy and flavorful, cut nice steaks onto your guest's plates. It is my favorite piece of a bovine.

Summary

Serve tri-tip with garlic bread, salad, and maybe a potato. If you use the Grizzly Joe's seasoning, you probably won't need to add steak sauce.

You may not be able to pick this up at your local store. But if you ask your butcher to get tri-tip for you, he or she may be able to order it, or cut it special. It's well worth the effort.

Finally, since you won't be stabbing your meat to put it on the grill, flip it, or take it off the grill, I recommend some good barbeque tongs. Click here to see the most popular barbeque tongs available.

Go Get a Tri-Tip!

 

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