Tri-tip steak is trending, according to Google. And it’s no wonder, because this meaty cut is versatile and delicious—but it’s been hard to find in many places until fairly recently. If you’ve never tried it, here’s how to cook tri-tip and more about what makes it special.
In the same way that hemlines change with the zeitgeist, cuts of beef seem to come in and out of fashion with the seasons. Once, it was all about filet mignon and porterhouse steaks; more recently, 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 barbecue renaissance, giving rib-eye 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 red 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. It takes just as well to marinades as it does to dry rubs, too.
So we’re not surprised to see that interest in tri-tip spiked ahead of the 4th of July—the week before the holiday, it was the 5th most popular “how to” BBQ search, per Google:
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The main drawback to the tri-tip is (or has been) 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. You can ask your butcher to special order for you if need be, or find it online.
American Wagyu Black Grade Tri-Tip, $79 at Snake River Farms
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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.
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 Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip recipe.
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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.
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.
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.
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 Mediterranean Tri-Tip Steak recipe.
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 Crock Pot Shredded Beef Tacos recipe.
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 Slow Cooked Rosemary Tri-Tip French Dip recipe.
This post was originally published on September 19, 2015 and has been updated with additional images, links, and text.