In the same way that hemlines change with the zeitgeist, cuts of beef seem to come in and out of fashion with the seasons. Lately, there’s been an explosion of interest in pieces like the skirt and the flank as cooks have realized that those once-scorned steaks are actually full of deep, intensely beefy flavor. Or consider the brisket, which has shone in the spotlight with the recent barbecue renaissance, giving ribeye and filet a run for their money as the most coveted part of the steer.
Through it all, there has been one cut of incredible beef that perennially flies under the radar: the tri-tip. Its biggest claim to fame is as the star of Santa Maria barbecue, a style from California’s central coast. There, it’s dry-rubbed and grilled over oak chips culled from local trees. Lean with a mild beef flavor, the cut is ideal for soaking up the warmth of the rub’s spices and the fumes of the smoke, which help it gain a robust edge. Even with high heat and quick searing, the tri-tip has a texture that isn’t too far off from that of brisket, a cut that’s usually slow-cooked to bring out its tenderness. You could think of tri-tip as a piece of meat that cooks like a steak yet has many of the qualities you’d usually seek out in a low and slow cut.
The main drawback to the tri-tip is its scarcity outside of California. It comes from the bottom sirloin, sitting adjacent to the flap (a.k.a. the sirloin tip). Yet for some reason, the cut doesn’t show up in stores nearly as often as its beefy neighbor. You might be able to source it from a good butcher (or at least have them order it for you). But it’s pretty elusive when it comes to the meat case in your average supermarket. Sometimes, it’s sold under one of its other names, such as the Newport steak, triangle roast, or bottom sirloin butt. If you do spot it, you’ll know it by its uneven triangular shape, proportioned sort of like an elf hat, and size—it generally falls in the range of one and a half to two and a half pounds.
Tri-tips also cook beautifully in recipes beyond Santa Maria barbecue: they take favorably to most marinades and can even be prepared like a roast or in a braise. Here are seven recipes that will help you explore the possibilities.
1. Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip
The Santa Maria barbecue rub always includes salt, pepper, and garlic, although individual recipes call for different combos of herbs and other spices. Serve it with pinquito beans and Santa Maria salsa (a chunky mix of tomatoes, celery, and scallions) for a super-traditional plate. Get the recipe here.
2. Argentine Grilled Tri-Tip
If there’s any one country that is incomparably serious about its beef, it’s Argentina. This recipe pairs up a charcoal-grilled steak with the nation’s signature condiment, chimichurri. Get our Argentine Grilled Tri-Tip recipe.
3. Harissa-Marinated Tri-Tip Roast
If grilling is not an option, it’s perfectly acceptable to sear your tri-tip on the stove before allowing it to come to temperature in the oven. This particular take uses a harissa and sherry vinegar marinade that is as fiery, bold, and piquant as it gets. Get our Harissa-Marinated Tri-Tip Roast recipe.
4. Hoisin-Marinated Tri-Tip Roast
A hoisin-based sauce can infuse any meat with a salty-sweet complexity. Pair those strong flavors with plain rice and stir-fried veggies. Get our Hoisin-Marinated Tri-Tip Roast recipe.
5. Mediterranean Tri-Tip Steak
Instead of going for a marinade, this recipe opts to glaze the cooked steaks with a mixture pomegranate molasses and mint, which allows their tangy, herbal, and sweet tones to really lay it on thick and shine. Get the recipe here.
6. Crock Pot Shredded Beef Tacos
When braised in a crock pot, tri-tip gives you substantial, ropy shreds of meat instead of the fibrous chunks you get from many other cuts. After soaking and simmering in this recipe’s cumin-based broth, the meat is all set for plopping into tacos and other Mexican-inspired dishes. Get the recipe here.
7. Slow Cooked Rosemary Tri-Tip French Dip
Those beefy braised shreds can also form the basis for one killer sandwich. This French dip-style creation uses the meat’s cooking liquid as its savory dunking sauce. Get the recipe here.
Header image: Argentine Grilled Tri-Tip from CHOW
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.