Steak lovers rejoice! Grilled Tri-Tip Roast satisfies everyone from the “I like it rare” to the “no pink for me” people all in one cut of beef. This roast has a steak-like texture that makes grilling steak for the whole family a cinch.
We’ll show you how easy it is to select, prep, grill and serve this lesser-known cut that brings the wow factor.
A local specialty in Santa Maria in the 1950s, tri-tip has continued to grow in popularity with its amazing steak-like texture and flavor.
Also known as California cut, Santa Maria roast, Newport steak and triangle steak or roast, it’s routinely sliced for fajitas, grilled as a whole roast or steak, and even replaces ground beef in gourmet chili recipes.
Selecting the Perfect Tri-Tip Roast
Depending on regional availability, tri-tip can be an economical cut of steak for weekend grilling or entertaining—grilled as a whole roast or sliced into steaks.
It’s a triangular muscle located on each side of the cow just under the bottom sirloin (this description can help when requesting one from your butcher). If unavailable in your area, U.S. Wellness Meats is a quality source.
I’ve seen tri-tip range from very lean (not ideal) to overly fatty (okay, because fat can be trimmed).
Look for roasts or steaks with visible streaks of fat running through the meat indicating a well marbled, flavorful cut. If the roast is closely trimmed, you can see the white streaks across the muscle within the grain of the meat.
Some roasts are sold untrimmed, which means a fairly thick layer of fat is left on the muscle on one side. If this exterior fat cap is thicker than 1/4 inch, trim to a little less than 1/4″ thick.
NOTE: Exterior fat does little to flavor the meat, it is the interior fat marbling the meat that enhances flavor.
TIP: Trimming the exterior fat in this way will help minimize flare-ups yet retain enough fat to protect the meat from drying out on the grill. Visit Virtual Weber Bullet to see a trimmed and untrimmed photo.
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Should you use Marinade, Rubs, or Sauces on Tri-Tip?
Yes, however, HOW you use them matters.
Marinate for Specific Flavors
A marinade is a wet mixture of acid (vinegar, citrus, white wine) or enzymes with aromatics such as garlic, herbs, and a little oil to add specific flavors. These are ideal for imparting citrus or herb flavors that dry rubs can’t match, but work best on thinner cuts since it doesn’t penetrate deeply and the flavor is mostly at the surface.
Marinades with acids or enzymes (think papaya or pineapple) should only be on the meat for a couple of hours, otherwise, these ingredients toughen the meat or make it mushy.
TIP: Always use a glass dish with an acid-based marinade—aluminum and stainless steel can react with the acid and affect the meat.
Dry Rub for Flavor and Crust
A dry mixture of salt, pepper, dried herbs, or spices used to add flavor and texture—the seasoning works to form a crust.
Salt is the only thing that truly penetrates the meat beyond the surface.
Salt needs 40 minutes to penetrate and flavor the meat, so any rubs with salt should be allowed to rest on the meat for at least 40 minutes (up to 24 hours) before grilling. Otherwise, apply just before placing on the grill.
TIP: A good rule of thumb is 1 tablespoon of rub per pound of meat, depending on how salty the rub tastes raw. If you taste it straight from the package and you only taste salt, go with a little less. If the salt is pleasant and savory enhancing other flavors, the 1 tablespoon rule works.
Grilling a Tri-Tip
The flavor and texture of Tri-Tip Roast is more like steak than a traditional Sunday roast so it is best cooked medium-rare. The uneven thickness—thicker in the middle, thinner at the tapered ends—means it will be more done on the ends than in the middle.
To help the roast cook more evenly, position the thicker part toward the coals with the thinner ends pointing away once it is moved to the indirect heat side to finish cooking.
Short on time?
The same roast can be cut into steaks! Yep, just make sure you slice the roast against the grain into steaks at least 1-inch thick.
Need some pointers on grilling steaks? Check out this Steak and Shrimp Scampi Recipe post for trusted grilling tips.
Temperature Trumps Time on the Grill
If you’re grilling without an instant-read thermometer, it’s time to elevate your grilling game and stop guessing about doneness. Great grilling or barbecue relies more on temperature than time.
When the thicker, middle portion reaches medium-rare, the thinner ends will be closer to medium. As you can see in the photo below, the temperature of the tapered ends is almost 10 degrees higher than the middle, taken at the same time.
There are so many variables, any grilling recipe depending on timed doneness alone will always be a shot in the dark.
Here’s the instant-read thermometer I use: ThermoPop by ThermoWorks
Carving a Tri-Tip Roast
Once the roast has had a chance to rest after grilling, it’s time to slice and serve.
In the photo, the fork is positioned in the same direction the long strands of the meat form to easily identify where to position the knife and begin slicing. Cut against the grain and on a slight bias—this shortens the long strands of the muscle making it more tender to chew.
Keep in mind, a tri-tip has three points and the grain may change direction while cutting (each roast is different). Simply turn the roast to keep the knife slicing across the grain.
Finishing Sauces for Tri-Tip and Grilled Meats
A finishing sauce or condiment not only adds fresh flavor with every bite, it creates an eye-catching contrast to the browned meat when served. In the photo, I have added a simple tomato, garlic and basil garnish, but there are so many ways to complement this dish.
Mushroom & Blue Cheese Ragout—Fresh thyme accents the meaty flavor of crimini mushrooms and Blue cheese brings umami to the luxurious sauce.
Chimichurri Sauce—A vibrant mix of fresh parsley, vinegar, and spices–very simple and quick to make with a blender, food processor, or mortar and pestle.
Tomato-Basil Compound Butter—A compound butter is simple to make yet enhances lean grilled proteins with big flavor.
Gremolata—Just as you are easing into a savory, meaty bite, the slightly bitter tang of the gremolata will wake up your senses.
Santa Maria Salsa—Unexpected ingredients like celery, dried oregano, and Worcestershire transform ordinary salsa into a delicious barbecue partner.
Fresh Basil Pesto—It’s not just for pasta, my friends. It’s like spreading summer on a steak.
TIP: When serving a savory condiment or sauce, reduce the amount of seasonings on the meat before grilling so the sauce or condiment doesn’t over do it.
- 2 pounds tri-tip roast
- 5 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon liquid smoke flavoring
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Splash apple juice
- Or you can use a dry rub like our Smoked Chile Steak Rub
In a small bowl or using a mortar & pestle, mix the minced garlic, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 tablespoon liquid smoke, 2 teaspoons onion powder, 2 teaspoons sea salt, 1 teaspoon paprika and 1 teaspoon pepper to form a paste.
- Add enough apple juice to make the paste easy to spread.
- Spread paste evenly over the meat and allow to sit at least 1 hour, longer is better.
- NOTE: If using a dry rub, apply 1 tablespoon per pound of meat by rubbing into the meat and allow to sit at least 40 minutes before grilling.
When ready to grill, heat a gas grill on high until over 400 degrees (10-15 minutes).
- Once hot (425°F or higher), clean grates with a wire brush.
- Create two zones of heat by turning one of the burners off on one side while keeping the others on med-high.
Light wood briquettes in a charcoal chimney starter and allow to burn until 90% of the coals are glowing and hot (15 minutes).
- Dump hot coals into one side of the grill, leaving the other side open.
- Place the grill grate and clean with a wire brush.
Start tri-tip fat side up and sear the meat directly over the hot side of the grill for 5-7 minutes. Turn and sear the other side for 5-7 minutes.
- Move the meat to the cooler side, over indirect heat, and continue to cook for about 15 minutes (turn as needed) until the thickest part is medium rare (130-135ºF).
TIP: To help the roast cook more evenly, position the thicker part toward the coals with the thinner ends pointing away once it is moved to finish cooking on the indirect heat side.
- The thickness of the roast and desired doneness will dictate the remaining cooking time.
- Once the roast reaches the desired temperature, remove from the grill and transfer to a cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
- Carve by slicing against or across the grain -- this is especially important to ensure a tender texture when serving the finished roast.
- Total time includes marinating or using a rub and resting time.
- Some tri-tip roasts are sold untrimmed which means there can be a fairly thick layer of fat on one side. If that is the case, trim this layer to a little less than 1/4" thick.
- If the tri-tip roast has been trimmed and little fat is present on the outside, drizzle with olive oil on each side during the cooking process to help keep the meat from drying out.
- For a special finish, top the Tri-Tip roast or steaks with herbed compound butter once removed from the grill.
Delicious Side Dishes for Grilled Tri-Tip:
Tuscan Roasted Broccoli
Bid Winter Adieu with Spinach-Strawberry Salad
Vegetable Tian: Classic Gratin Comfort
Broccoli-Cauliflower Gratin Recipe
Savory Sweet Potatoes
Caesar Salad: A Tableside Classic
Southwest Cauliflower Rice Pilaf with Toasted Pepitas
Try our very own Smoked Chile Steak Rub for steaks, tri-tip, burgers and more!
Our Smoked Chile Steak Rub provides deep flavor with a hint of smoky spice for beef, lamb or wild game. Created with the perfect steak in mind, we think you’ll make your best tasting steak yet with our rub. This seasoning is ideal for bringing a smoky flavor when cooking on a gas grill.
- Only whole ground spices, no extractives.
- Rich, smoky flavor comes from naturally smoked whole ingredients, not sprayed-on powders.
- No MSG, preservatives, or anti-caking agents, and ingredients are never hidden under “natural flavors”.
- Made with naturally smoked sea salt and coconut palm sugar, so it’s Paleo diet friendly.