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.
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.
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.
When cooked like a steak it is incredibly juicy and can be made tender when sliced against the grain (more on that below).
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.
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.
*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.
If I didn't do it this way, I would of used my cast-iron skillet with butter.
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.
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).
At this stage, the outer surface likely isn't too appealing. However, this is fixed when you sear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
If you slice with the grain, your teeth have a much harder time doing so which folks then refer to as "chewy."
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.