Smoked Tri-Tip: Recipe and How-to Guide

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
May 21, 2022

Tri-tip is a cut of meat often confused with Brisket or Picanha. While you can cook tri-tip like a brisket, it's actually a steak.

Meaning, you can reverse sear it (in this case smoke it, then sear it) and slice when it reaches medium-rare.

The result is a super flavorful, tender, cut of meat.

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What is Tri-Tip?

The tri-tip is a cut of meat sourced from the bottom of the sirloin. It is so-called because it is triangular shaped with a tapered tip.

tri tip location

Historically, the Tri-tip was ground up for hamburger meat. It wasn't until the 1950s when Bob Schutz of Santa Maria Market decided to grill it like a steak.

You might also see it referred to as California cut, Newport Steak, Santa Maria steak, and sometimes a "poor man's brisket." More scientifically it is the tensor fasciae latae muscle.

I typically reserve "poor man's brisket" for chuck roast, as tri-tip is a steak, not a roast (like actual brisket) - granted, you can smoke it like a brisket.

Tri-tip is relatively lean piece of meat and honestly doesn't need much trimming. However this also depends on how you buy it. Like brisket, you can remove silver-skin, ragged nodules, and excess fat.

tri-tip

When cooked like a steak it is incredibly juicy and can be made tender when sliced against the grain (more on that below).

Ingredients

  • Tri-tip (mine was 2.62 lbs)
  • Kosher Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Lawry's Seasoned Salt

Whenever I cook any steak I typically just use salt, pepper, and Lawry's seasoned salt. I've yet to find a person who dislikes this combination.

tri-tip seasoned
Tri-tip seasoned with Kosher Salt, Pepper, and Lawry's Seasoned Salt

Most folks have kosher salt and pepper on-hand, however if you don't have Lawry's seasoned salt (can be a little expensive), garlic powder is a great option too.

I especially like Burlap and Barrel's purple stripe garlic powder.

Tri-tip is a very versatile cut of meat. It truly pairs well with most seasonings or rubs and you'd be hard pressed to over-season the meat.

Meaning, if you're a beginner with a heavy-hand, don't fret.

I'm a big fan of actually tasting the beef. In my opinion, things like smoke flavor and dry-rub only exist to further elevate the meat.

Equipment

  • A smoker - I use a 22" Weber Kettle
  • Charcoal
  • Post oak wood chunks
  • Something to sear the steak with*

*For this guide, I opted to sear the steak on top of my charcoal chimney with grill grates. I've seen a few folks do this and figured why not give it a try; It actually worked surprisingly well and I'd do it again.

charcoal chimney sear side view

If I didn't do it this way, I would of used my cast-iron skillet with butter.

Smoking the Tri-Tip

Since I'll be cooking the tri-tip like a steak, my goal with smoking is to offer the tri-tip as much smoke flavor as possible until the internal temperature reaches 125-130F (medium-rare).

In order to do this, you want to run the temperature lower - around 225F. However, somewhere between 180F to 250F works fine.

smoking tri tip

The reason you want the smoker's temperature to be lower is because the lower the temperature, the slower the meat reaches the desired internal temperature and the more smoke flavor.

For most cuts of beet that I smoke - like brisket for example - I usually use post-oak. However, you'd be safe to use a stronger wood like Hickory.

Even factors like thin blue smoke don't tend to matter here as the smoke interacts with the meat for such a small period of time.

At 225F, it took roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes for the temperature to reach 125F internal.

When the meat reached 115F internal at the thickest part of the steak, I got my charcoal chimney going with roughly a half chimney of charcoal.

By the time the steak reached 125F internal, the chimney was done (typically takes 15-20 minutes to fully ash over).

charcoal chimney sear top view
Wait for the briquettes to entirely ash over!

At this stage, the outer surface likely isn't too appealing. However, this is fixed when you sear.

Searing the Tri-Tip

There are a few different ways you can accomplish the sear.

For this recipe, I opted to sear with my charcoal chimney and grill grates.

Once the temperature reaches 125F at the thickest point of the tri-tip, I took it off the grill and placed it on the searing grates. Essentially this was just 1 minute on each side.

searing tri tip
Seared for 1 minute on each side

However, if I didn't have a charcoal chimney and extra grill grates, I would of finished the steak on my cast iron skillet with butter.

If you're using a cast iron skillet, you want to get the pan as hot as possible and then add your butter. The reason to use butter is because the milk proteins help to brown the meat which creates a great bark.

If your skillet is hot enough, it should only take 30-60 seconds per side.

I then took the tri-tip off the grates and brought it inside.

Resting Tri-Tip

I'm not a big "believer" in resting meats like steaks. I think it's something a lot of people over-exaggerate to the point where you're degrading the meat through carry-over cooking. The juice loss is also insignificant.

At most, I rested the tri-tip for five minutes. This was the time it took me to take the steak off the charcoal chimney/grates, bring it inside, and then set the dinner table.

tri tip resting

As soon as you take the meat off the heat, it's technically resting. Allowing the meat to rest for a long time causes the outer surface (the hottest part of the meat) to carryover to the inside of the meat.

As you can imagine, you can quickly take your steak from medium-rare (130 - 135F) to Medium (140 - 150 F).

If you're someone who does believe in resting, at most, rest for 10 minutes.

Do not cover in aluminum foil as this just ruins the outer crust you created when searing. Simply allow the tri-tip to stand on a plate.

Slicing Tri-tip

The way in which you slice tri-tip is vitally important. If you slice it incorrectly, you can take a tender piece of meat and make it tough and chewy.

Tri-tip is unique in that the muscle has two grain directions; One is oriented vertically, the other horizontally.

slicing tri tip
It is much easier to see the grain on raw meat

The best way to tackle this is to slice the meat in half where these grain patterns meet.

Once you've done this, you can slice against the grain (slice perpendicular) on both cuts of meat.

If you're not sure what this means, I have an entire article outlining how to find the grain and slice against it - you can read it here.

To summarize that article, slicing against the grain shortens muscle fiber lengths which makes it easier for your teeth to separate the meat - hence "tender."

tri tip slice against the grain

If you slice with the grain, your teeth have a much harder time doing so which folks then refer to as "chewy."

smoked tri tip recipe
Tri-tip sliced up and ready to eat!

Final Thoughts

Tri-tip is a wonderfully delicious cut of meat; It's also fairly affordable. The above is a USDA prime Tri-tip from Wild Fork Foods.

Again, you can smoke the meat like a brisket, but if you're in the mood for steak and want a relatively quick, easy meal to feed the family, Tri-tip is a great option.

smoked tri tip recipe

Smoked Tri-Tip Recipe

Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: tri-tip
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
Resting Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Equipment

  • Smoker
  • Charcoal briquettes Firelighter to ignite the charcoal or a butane torch
  • Post-oak wood chunks
  • Charcoal Chimney
  • Removable Grill Grates The chimney and removable grill grates are used to sear. In place of this method, you can use a cast iron skillet with butter.

Ingredients

  • 2.62 lbs Tri-tip

Dry Rub

  • 1 Tbsp Kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp Black peppercorns You need something to grind these with like a grinder or pestle and mortar.
  • 1 Tbsp Lawry's seasoning salt

Instructions

  • Remove the tri-tip from vacuum seal.
    2.62 lbs Tri-tip
  • Place tri-tip on a cutting board and pat dry with a paper towel, then apply your dry rub. The goal is to cover all surfaces of the meat (including edges) while still being able to see the meat itself.
    1 Tbsp Kosher salt, 1 Tbsp Black peppercorns, 1 Tbsp Lawry's seasoning salt
  • Put dry-rubbed tri-tip on a plate and in the fridge while you prepare your smoker.

Smoking the Tri-tip

  • Get your smoker to 180 - 250F. I personally used a Weber kettle with the Slow N' Sear, however what you use may vary; Your goal should be to maintain a lower smoke temperature for optimal amounts of smoke (the lower the better). I went with 225F.
  • Once the smoker has stabilized, place a post-oak wood chunk on the coals and allow it to smolder.
  • Bring the tri-tip outside and place in the cool zone of the smoker - opposite of your fire.

Searing the Tri-tip

  • Monitor the internal temperature of the tri-tip. At around 115F internal ( probe the thickest part of the meat) I started getting my charcoal chimney ready.
  • Fill the charcoal chimney about half way and then light the coals. Wait for the charcoal to entirely ash over - this typically takes 15-20 minutes.
  • By the time the internal temperature of the tri-tip reaches 125F the chimney should be ready. Place the grill grates over the chimney and then place the tri-tip in the center of the flame. You should sear for roughly a minute on each side.

Resting the Tri-tip

  • After you're happy with the outside of the meat, bring inside to rest for 5 minutes.

Slicing the Tri-tip

  • Tri-tip has a unique grain structure and you should make note of it before cooking as it's easier to see when the meat is raw. Separate the meat at the point where the grain changes direction (typically in the middle of the boomerang shape). Once separated, slice each portion against the grain.
Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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