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!

 

{ 253 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian January 26, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Amazing! I’ve followed your instructions for two dinner parties and people can’t stop talking about it. Using my trusty Weber charcoal grill and a nice cut from Costco. Thanks for the tasty steak!

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Gabriel January 2, 2014 at 6:07 pm

hey just had to come by and thank you for the easy to follow instructions. i was so scared of ruining such a great (expensive) cut of meat my first time. i followed the directions very closely. i let the meat coem to room temperature, i cleaned alot of the fat off (left about 1/4 inch), seasoned with generously with garlic salt, fresh ground rainbow peppercorns, and lawrys seasoned salt. i have a 4 burner gas grill so i did the middle 2 on low and the outer 2 on high, 15 min on both sides (no peeking) and it came out INCREDIBLE. heres a pic for reference — http://i.imgur.com/o8MUxPM.jpg

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Rick December 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Tipsy I too have been cooking Tri Tips for years and I look forward to using your cooking method. I thought I would share mine with you for what ever it’s worth. I typically preseason my Tri’s with plenty of fresh ground pepper, Lowrey’s seasoning salt and Lowrey’s Garlic flakes with parsley. I season both sides and with my finger tips press the seasonings firmly into the meat. I then leave the meat out to come to room temperature and hour to 90 minutes. On the grill I turn on two burners to max and when the grill is hot enough I turn the burners to their lowest setting and place the Tips fat side down right over the burners with hood down. I let the fat cap cook for ten minutes to develop a good seasoned crust after which I then turn over the Tip and cook the other side for ten minutes. because I’m cooking directly over burners I then turn the meat over approx every six minutes or so. Do this until fifty cooking minutes have been reached and you will have Trip Tip that will be cooked from medium at the ends to Medium Rare in the center.

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tipsy December 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Thank you Rick. That sounds delicious. I especially like the crispy fat. Makes my mouth water.

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D December 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Have you had much experience with Buffalo Tri Tip? If you have would you say that the procedures change very much?

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tipsy December 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Hi D, I have not tried buffalo tri-tip. But I’ve cooked other buffalo meat and it tends to be much leaner than beef. Because of that I’ve noticed that it dries out much quicker. If there was anything I’d change, I suppose it would be based on that. Maybe a longer, slower cooking time and I’d be checking for done-ness a lot earlier by poking it with my finger.

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sharon December 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm

just ordered a 20lb tritip from our local butcher-having 16 to 18 people fior agettogether-so—- just grill this on your gas grill? about how long will it take for med-rare? thanks for your your good advice.

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tipsy December 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Wow – that would be a huge tri-tip. Generally, they are only around 2.5 t0 3 lbs. If you ordered 20 lbs of tri-tip, you will probably get several, in which case you would just follow the same directions as you would for one. It’s hard to say how long for med-rare because I don’t know how much heat you’re using. With a gas grill at about 375-400 deg. F, I’d say around 25 min. But I just use the touch test to tell when it’s done.

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shelly October 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I’m from Mississippi and didn’t blink an eye at ‘tin foil’ until I saw the comment!!! And I’m in my 40′s!! What we’ve always called it!!!! HA!
Gotta love the South – - – trying your receipt tonight – can’t wait!! First time for tri tip – my CA friend told me about it – finally found one!! I’ll let you know!!! ‘TIN FOIL’ Yea! My new favorite word!!!!

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jerry October 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

I live in Georgia and will cook my tri-tip on a Big Green Egg.
Some real good tips here. Many Barbeque competitions in our part of the country so an abundance of dry rubs to choose from. Thanks

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Lowell Johnson September 25, 2013 at 10:51 am

I cook Tri Tip for Sons of Norway every year. Sometimes as many as 125. Generally use the same techniques, however, have had great success in doing a three day marinade with Montreal Steak powder combined with Chaka Sauce. I put two steaks in a one gallon sealed bag. Hot fire, cover, turn once 35 mins or so later take off and rest for 15. Use sharp knife or Hobart slicer. Enjoy!

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Rabah Rahil September 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Awesome post! I am trying my hand at cooking one tonight. What is a good amount for two people ? 2 lbs?

Cheers,

R

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tipsy September 17, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Rabah, You should have leftovers if you’re cooking a 2 lb. tri-tip for two people. I’d say between 4 – 8 oz. is a more likely portion size. It depends on how much you can eat. Enjoy!

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Trish September 7, 2013 at 12:34 am

What about cooking on an old fashioned charcoal grill?

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tipsy September 7, 2013 at 11:20 am

Hi Trish, Tri-tip is very good cooked on a charcoal grill. My advice is getting the coals nice and hot and then moving them over to one side of the grill. Cook the tri-tip over the other side. Not placing the meat directly over the coals will help you avoid flare ups. Since tri-tip has fat marbled through the meat, it will drip and catch fire if you cook the meat right over the coals. The rest of the instructions are pretty much the same. Don’t poke it and flip it. Just let the fire do its job. Enjoy!

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michelle August 28, 2013 at 9:44 am

Ive lilved in the Central Valley of CA for 33 yrs, but never had such great success with a tri tip until I found this instruction page. Thank you so much!

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Scott August 21, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Great piece, Steve. Is there a problem using the same tongs I use on the raw meat when I put the steaks on, to take the steaks off? In other words, should I wash the tongs in between?
Thanks again.

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tipsy August 22, 2013 at 8:33 am

Scott, You should wash the tongs between the raw meat and cooked meat. I hate doing that though, so I just put the raw meat on the grill with my hands. since it’s partly cooked by the time I flip it, I avoid washing the tongs. I keep sanitizer nearby to keep my hands clean.

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Rhonda August 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for the tips! I have a few questions. How many tri- tips would you grill for 20 people and how would you adjust your burners? I will have access to two, three burner grills. Also, this is probably a silly question, but should the lid to the grill be open or shut? Lastly, I saw a recipe for a marinade that sounded really good and wondered if that would change the cooking technique. Thanks.

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tipsy August 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Rhonda, The tri-tips I get here are usually around two and a half to three pounds pounds each (trimmed). I figure 4-5 people per tri-tip, depending on the appetites involved. So you’ll need to cook 4-5 tri-tips for 20 people. You should be able to fit them on two grills and have plenty of room to use indirect heat if you’d like. I cook them with the lid closed. Finally, I don’t think the marinade will make much difference in the cooking technique.

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Greg August 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for this. Growing up in Northern California, Tri-Tip was the go to grilling meat. I have had many good and bad Tri-Tips. And I am eager to use your suggestions.

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Russell Iida August 10, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I have cooked a few tri-tips but really I had NOT. Until I followed your recipe
and rules and WOW!!! my family thanks you remember the more you flip the more you trip :)

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Joshua June 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm

One more thing! I live in sunny Southern California and when it’s really hot outside maybe you might want all 3 burners on low like I am right now because i’m reaching over 400 degress with them all on low. Just a circumstance you might run in to but again terrific article. Very well done…..and not talking about the meat! :D

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Joshua June 25, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Excellent article! Been forever since I grilled a tri tip (7 years?) so wanted to brush up on how it’s done. Found out some stuff I didn’t know, thanks!

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Conrad June 25, 2013 at 11:26 am

Tipsy, Thanks so much for this way to cook, I have used so many different recipes for cooking tri-tip. and this by far turned out the best. The secret I believe is the indirect heat and not freaking flipping it over and over. It came out juicy and extremely tender. I love tri tip and agree best part of bovine!! I did add to your recipe, Ice cold beer ..use it as a timer to flip you know!

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MJ June 24, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Perfect! I’ve BBQ’d tri tip before, but this technique provided for the juiciest and most tender steak. Everyone loved it!

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Phil June 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm

What’s “tinfoil?” Tinfoil? I bet you remember when Eisenhower was president!
I do! Ha ha ha.
Delicious…thanks for the good “tips”….(pun intended)

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Jennifer Mills June 21, 2013 at 8:05 am

How do you cook it in the oven? Any great suggestions. I like your grill approach but in KY, you can’t always grill outside. Thanks for helping growing cooks like myself. :)

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tipsy June 25, 2013 at 10:25 am

Hi Jennifer, I wrote a post about cooking tri-tip in the oven here: http://www.tipsycook.com/how-to-cook-tri-tip-in-the-oven/ I hope you enjoy it!

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Tim June 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Obviously you do know how to cook tri tip. Until I moved to Santa Maria, I had never heard of it before. As I learned about it, I found out that it was really the only area you could find it, even though it’s available nationwide to any meat cutter who knows how to cut it. Most toss the main part because they feel it is too fatty and won’t sell. I’m sure that if anyone who can’t find it should be able to get it if you have stores with a butcher’s counter. I have found that most cuts that aren’t usually available in the meat racks can still be ordered. Just be sure to specify that you want untrimmed, otherwise you will get it bare bones trimmed.

When I cook it, it usually takes between 45 minutes to an hour. I heat the bbq to temperature then turn the heat to one side totally off. By not cooking over direct (covered gas bbqs only) heat you don’t have flare ups as it takes flame to cause the flare up. By doing this I don’t even have to keep an eye on it. When the 45 minute timer goes off I do poke it through the fat down into the meat. If it reads 160, then the actual red meat will be about 145 as the fat will cause the thermometer to read higher since it heats up faster than the red meat. If it reads 160-165 it is done and comes out medium rare. If not I will cook 1 minute more for each degree it still needs to cook. If you really want it to be medium, then I would cook it for 75 minutes, but it will not be nearly as moist.

I do not use any rub or marinade. I see the packaged Santa Maria Style Tri Tip at the store all the time and I have never seen anyone in Santa Maria make tri tip that looks like it. I cook it devoid of any spices and seasonings and supply Lawry’s Seasoning Salt and salsa to anyone who wants more flavor than the meat itself has. Granted, I would never be able to cook tri tip in a judged cooking competition since every competition I have seen on TV, the judges always deduct a large number of points for not using salt before or during cooking. It is as though tri tip is bland otherwise, but it is far from that. It is one of the tastiest cuts of meat out there, comparable to rib eyes but one-third the price. Also, I put the emphasis on SALSA! The salsa, preferably homemade, to me is the icing on the tri tip. It adds another layer of flavor.

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Henry June 17, 2013 at 6:12 am

I cooked one for fathers day. Although I did not follow the above advise, wish I’d seen it first, it still turned out wonderfull. I did end up pocking it…..with a meat thermometer. Strange, even though there was no pink, never got the thermometer up to 130+. Thinking about using a drip pan under it (center burner off) while the left and right burners are on?????

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Steve June 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm

The author has nailed it. The tri-tip is by far the most enjoyed backyard BBQ cut of meat in California. I use an untrimmed 2.25 pound cut with a Montreal steak seasoning which is primarily salt and pepper with some other herbs. I apply a light rub of the seasoning and cook it a touch cooler at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes with a five minute rest period. With a three burner gas BBQ, I leave the two outside burners on low and the middle one off with the meat over the middle burner.
It’s a bit of work to keep the flare-ups down with the untrimmed cut but it’s absolutely worth it.

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tipsy June 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Thanks so much Steve – I love comments like that, making my mouth water.

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Matthew Mumau June 15, 2013 at 12:14 pm

So you don’t sear your entire Tri Tip over a hot flame or pan before you let it slow cook? I figured if I sear the whole thing quickly just a little it would keep the inside more moist… is this true?

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tipsy June 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Matthew, I don’t sear it first. I suppose it’s because there is a lot of fat marbled in this piece that keeps it pretty moist without searing.

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Jenn June 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I am so excited to try this recipe! I have been looking at tri tip recipes for an hour and you have made it seem so do-able.. How many pounds would I need to make tri tip sandwiches for 20 people?

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tipsy June 13, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I like around 1/4 lb. of meat on a sandwich. A lot depends on the people you’re feeding, and the type of bread, etc. But that’s probably a safe measure. That would put you at around 5 lbs of tri-tip. (But get at least 6 lbs to allow for the crusty ends and tidbits you’ll want to snack on while you make the sandwiches.)

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