Put this ultra juicy smoked tri tip on the dinner menu when you need a meal that's sure to impress! In just 90 minutes with only a handful of simple ingredients and very little hands-on preparation, you can put the most flavorful, tender tri-tip steak on the table after smoking to absolute perfection. Bring your appetite because you and your guests will savor every succulent bite.
What Is Tri Tip?
Named for its triangular shape, the tri tip comes from the bottom sirloin subprimal cut of a cow. You may have even heard this beef cut referred to as Santa Maria Steak or California’s Cut, thanks to its West Coast roots.
Traditionally, tri tip was ground into hamburger meat or trimmed into stew meat. But that all changed when Bob Schutz, owner of Santa Maria Market, began serving this beef cut as a juicy, tender steak in the 1950s. This style remained more of a food staple on the West Coast, but it’s been gaining popularity and availability over recent years. One bite and you’ll see why.
While this is a lean cut of beef, it’s still full of flavor. In this recipe, we’re using the whole roast, but we then slice it into pieces to make more of a tri-tip steak. Once sliced, it will look similar to a prepared skirt steak, but it’s a much higher-quality cut.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
Easy for beginner and expert pit masters alike: First time smoking meat? No problem here. A tri-tip roast is truly one of the simplest smoking recipes, and we don’t have to mess with fussy ingredients.
Versatile for a casual summer meal or holiday dinner: During the summer months, there’s nothing like firing up the smoker and enjoying a relaxing, low-key meal on the patio. But don’t feel like you can’t prepare this meal throughout the year. With its steak-like presentation, a smoked tri tip is elegant enough to make a beautiful holiday dinner. As a bonus, that means one less item that takes up oven space when you’re trying to make all those delicious side dishes and holiday desserts.
Loaded with flavor after a short smoking session: A slow-smoked brisket is always delicious, but it takes a lot of time to cook. When you don’t have 15-plus hours to spend smoking, grab a triangle tip and prepare this wonderful beef cut in a fraction of the time.
Tri tip: We’re looking for the whole roast here as pictured. Some butchers and grocery stores serve the roast trimmed, but it’s very possible to pick up an untrimmed cut. I bought an untrimmed roast from my local grocery store, so we’ll walk through the process to show you how simple it is to take care of this step if necessary.
Spice mixture: Let’s keep it simple here. We only need salt, black pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika. While you’re more than welcome to use a dry rub with more seasonings, I’m a big believer in letting the beefy flavor shine. Other popular seasonings include brown sugar, onion powder and chili powder.
Olive oil: This helps our spice mixture adhere to the meat, and I find it also promotes more browning.
Butter: We use this in the final stage to reverse sear the meat. Since we’re smoking at a low temperature, the reverse sear gives us a nice crust. And, hey, butter makes everything better.
Step 1: If the tri tip is untrimmed, it will have a large layer of fat on one side and likely additional fat spots on the other side (photos 1 and 2). We take a sharp knife and slice underneath where it meets the beef to remove the large fat cap and continue cutting until all the fat is removed like so (photo 3). We flip the fat side and trim any other large pieces. If we see any silver skin, we’ll want to trim those spots too.
Pro tip: Even if the main layer of fat was trimmed, take a look at the beef to make sure no excess fat patches or silver skin remain. If they do, simply slice off those spots as detailed.
Step 2: Now we pour the olive oil onto the triangle roast and use our hands to coat it on both sides (photo 4).
Step 3: With our beef coated, we rub the tri tip seasoning all over the meat (photo 5). At this point, we can move on to smoking if you’re short on time, or you’re more than welcome to cover it in plastic wrap and allow the tri tip to dry brine in the refrigerator.
Essentially, dry brining uses salt to pull moisture from the meat, and then after resting, the salt reabsorbs to make an even more flavorful, tender beef. For best results, you want to give a large piece of meat, like tri tip, 12-24 hours to let the process work its magic.
Step 4: To cook, we place the tri tip directly on the grill grates with a water pan at 225 degrees F, insert a leave-in meat thermometer and allow it to smoke until it comes within 5 degrees of our final desired internal temperature (photo 6). As the meat comes close to finishing, begin heating a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it’s blazingly hot.
Step 5: Now we melt butter in that heated cast-iron skillet and reverse sear the tri tip on both sides until browned (photo 7). This won’t take long. About two to three minutes per side is all we need.
Step 6: For our final step, we allow the meat to rest for five to 10 minutes (photo 8) and then slice against the grain on a cutting board. To do this, we place our knife perpendicularly on the grain and then slice. We want to slice against the grain rather than with it to prevent it from being overly chewy. Keep in mind that tri tip has grains running in two different directions, so you’ll want to rotate the meat when slicing.
Final Internal Temperature Range
We want to smoke the tri tip to our desired level of doneness, which is based on the below internal temperature of the meat. For the juiciest, most flavorful tri tip, I recommend smoking to no more than medium rare with medium being the absolute highest internal temperature. Remember, you want to pull the tri tip when it’s about 5-10 degrees lower than these final temperatures.
|Rare||125 degrees F|
|Medium rare||135 degrees F|
|Medium||140 degrees F|
|Medium well||155 degrees F|
|Well done||160 degrees F|
Of course, you’re more than welcome to simply cut the beef into thin slices and serve, but that’s just one idea. Here are a few of my favorite ways to use tri tip — both freshly smoked and leftovers work well here.
- Use as a protein in this mac and cheese
- Stuff into a hot, cheesy sub sandwich
- Spread on top of nachos
- Stir into a queso
- Serve as a filling for tacos, enchiladas or burritos
- Add to make one epic grilled cheese
Red oak is traditional on the West Coast, and you can’t go wrong there. That said, I also love smoking a triangle steak with mesquite. Both woods infuse bold, smoky flavor, and since we’re dealing with a short smoke time, I especially like bigger wood varieties here.
We want to smoke to the internal temperature rather than time. Every cut of meat is different, and so many factors play into smoking time that it’s not an accurate gauge. That said, you can expect it to take closer to an hour for rare or up to an hour and a half to two hours for well done.
This recipe works just as well on any type of smoker. An electric smoker, pellet smoker, propane smoker, charcoal smoker — you name it. You can use it in this recipe.
Expect to feed four to six people with one tri-tip roast. If I’m serving a heavy dinner with lots of appetizers, side dishes and dessert, I’d lean toward six people. For a lighter meal, plan for four people. Of course, this is not an exact science here, so use this suggestion as a guideline.
Don’t skip trimming: The fat cap on top will not break down during the cooking process. It absolutely needs to be removed. Also, trim the meat right after removing it from the refrigerator. Cold meat is stiffer and much easier to trim.
Avoid overcooking: You will lose so much flavor and juiciness, and it’s just not as tender if you overcook it. I highly recommend not going above medium rare.
Allow the meat to rest: This gives the juices time to redistribute in the meat. If you cut into it too soon, you’ll be left with a dry piece and have wasted all that time, effort and money. You deserve better than that.
Use a leave-in thermometer in the thickest part of the meat: With this type of thermometer, you can constantly check the internal temperature without having to open the smoker and lose all that heat. Plus, it ensures you never overcook your meat.
You’ll enjoy a brown ale. The light, caramel-like malt nicely contrasts the smoky notes, and its medium body works well with the lean tri tip. We don’t want an overly heavy beer here. An amber ale also makes a nice option.
If you’re looking for a wine, try a zinfandel. You’ll love how the peppery zinfandel plays with the rub and smoked-infused meat, and those jammy berry notes counter the spice rub.
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Juicy Smoked Tri Tip
- Smoker any type
- Wood chips or wood pellets preferably red oak or mesquite
- Meat thermometer preferably a leave-in digital thermometer
- 12-inch cast-iron skillet
- 1 tri tip
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ tablespoon salt
- ½ tablespoon black pepper
- ½ tablespoon garlic powder
- ½ tablespoon smoked paprika
- 4 tablespoons salted butter
- If the tri tip is untrimmed, use a sharp knife to cut off the large fat cap. Flip the tri tip and trim off any excessive pieces of fat and silver skin. Even if your tri tip was trimmed, make sure it doesn't need any additional trimming and remove those spots if necessary.
- Rub the olive oil all over the tri tip.
- Stir together the salt, black pepper, garlic powder and smoked paprika and rub all over the meat so that it's well-coated. If desired, you can wrap the meat in plastic wrap and allow it to dry brine in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. However, this step is optional, and you can move straight to smoking if you'd like.
- Place the tri tip directly on the grates of a 225-degree F smoker with a water pan. Insert the leave-in meat thermometer, close the lid and smoke until it reaches 5-10 degrees below your desired final internal temperature (see notes for temperatures).
- As the meat nears your desired temperature, heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it's blazingly hot. Right before searing the meat, add the butter, which will melt almost instantly. Place the tri tip in the hot skillet. You might need to curl the small end to help it fully fit. Sear until browned, about two to three minutes. Flip and repeat on the other side.
- Remove the tri tip from the skillet and place on a cutting board. Allow it to rest for five to 10 minutes. Cut into thin slices against the grain, rotating the meat as needed when the grain direction changes. If desired, spoon remaining melted butter on meat and serve. Enjoy!
- Remove the meat when it's 5-10 degrees below these final temperatures: 125 degrees for rare, 135 degrees for medium rare, 140 degrees for medium, 155 degrees for medium well and 160 degrees for well.
- I highly recommend not cooking above medium rare with medium being the absolute highest for the most tender, juicy meat.
- Don’t skip trimming. The fat cap on top will not break down during the cooking process. It absolutely needs to be removed. Also, trim the meat right after removing it from the refrigerator. Cold meat is stiffer and much easier to trim.
- Don't skip the rest stage either. This allows the juice to redistribute in the meat. Otherwise, you'll be left with a dry piece of tri tip.
- Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.