What Cut is Tri-Tip Beef? A Guide to this Tasty and Tender Steak

Tri-tip beef is a delicious, flavorful, and relatively lean cut of beef that comes from the bottom sirloin. With its signature triangular shape that tapers to a point on one end, tri-tip gets its name honestly – it’s quite literally a three-tipped cut of meat!

While this cut has long been popular on the West Coast, especially in California’s Santa Maria Valley where it originated, the tri-tip is gaining broader popularity and availablity across the US. If you aren’t familiar with tri-tip yet, keep reading to learn all about this tasty cut of beef!

What Part of the Cow Does Tri-Tip Come From?

Tri-tip comes from the bottom sirloin, which is located in the rear of the cow above the flank and behind the round primal cut.

Specifically, it is one of two muscles that make up the bottom sirloin. The other muscle is the bavette, also known as flap meat, which is used for bavette steak.

On each side of the cow there is one tri-tip roast weighing 1.5 to 2.5 pounds. It tapers from the top to bottom, forming the signature triangular shape.

The History and Origin of Tri-Tip

While the tri-tip has likely been present in butchered beef cuts for ages, it did not gain popularity as a distinct cut of meat until the 1950s in California’s Santa Maria Valley.

As the story goes, a local butcher named Bob Schutz first began preparing and selling the tri-tip as a steak rather than using it for ground beef or stew meat. Its popularity quickly took off among barbecue fans in the area.

Since then, Santa Maria has become synonymous with tri-tip, which is often referred to as the “Santa Maria steak.” Residents of the Central California town are so proud of their tri-tip that Santa Maria even hosts a annual tri-tip festival each May!

Due to this lineage, tri-tip is known as “California’s cut” and you can find it featured prominently on menus and in butcher cases throughout the Golden State.

Why Wasn’t Tri-Tip Popular Before?

being such a flavorful and tender cut, it may seem surprising that tri-tip wasn’t utilized as a steak prior to the 1950s. There are a couple reasons why butchers previously passed it over:

  • Limited quantity – Each cow only produces two tri-tip cuts, one per side. With larger, meatier cuts like ribeye in greater supply, the tri-tip was overlooked.

  • Small size – Tri-tip roasts weigh just 1.5 – 2.5 pounds. For a butcher trying to maximize profits, devoting premium display space to a small cut was unappealing.

  • Unknown potential – No one realized how delicious tri-tip could be as a grilled steak! It was either ground or cubed for stew meat instead.

Once Santa Maria locals discovered how scrumptious the tri-tip tasted cooked over an open flame, it became a sensation. The cut finally got its due as a flavorful and relatively inexpensive grilling steak.

Key Characteristics of Tri-Tip

Now that it has entered the spotlight, the tri-tip has proven itself as an excellent steak choice. Here are some of its best attributes:

  • Flavor – The tri-tip has beefy, rich flavor despite its leanness. The meat holds its own with robust seasonings.

  • Tenderness – Coming from a well-exercised part of the cow, the tri-tip is surprisingly tender, especially when sliced properly across the grain.

  • Leanness – Compared to ribeyes and other premium steaks, the tri-tip is lower in fat and calories. It has a nice marbling but usually little exterior fat.

  • Value – With good availability and reasonable prices per pound, tri-tip delivers excellent bang for your buck. It’s budget-friendly for feeding a crowd.

  • Versatility – Delicious grilled or smoked whole, tri-tip can also be sliced for fajitas or stir fry after cooking.

How Much Does Tri-Tip Cost?

The average price for tri-tip is $3.99 to $7.99 per pound at many grocery stores and butchers. This compares quite favorably to the average per pound costs of:

  • Ribeye – $13.99 – $17.99
  • NY Strip – $11.99 – $17.99
  • Filet Mignon – $17.99 – $34.99

Since each tri-tip roast weighs around 2 pounds, you can pick one up for about $8 to $16 total. That makes it budget-friendly to feed a group with delicious grilled steak!

Of course, prices can vary based on location, meat quality, and source. Grass-fed tri-tip may cost a little more than conventional. Ordering directly from a butcher may also yield savings versus buying retail.

How to Cook Tri-Tip

While this cut was born to be barbecued Santa Maria style, the tri-tip takes well to all cooking methods. Here are some top preparation tips:

  • Grilling – The high heat of the grill nicely sears the exterior while allowing it to remain juicy and medium-rare in the center. Cook over direct high heat before moving to indirect heat to finish.

  • Smoking – The tri-tip’s leanness allows the smoky flavors to penetrate into the meat. Maintain a temperature of 225°F – 250°F. Smoke until it reaches an internal temperature of 125°F.

  • Sous vide – Cooking low and slow in a water bath helps break down connective tissue. Try cooking at 130°F – 135°F for 1 – 4 hours before searing.

  • Pan searing – Get your cast iron pan very hot before adding oil. Sear the meat on both sides and baste with butter, garlic, and herbs as it cooks.

  • Oven roasting – Seasoned tri-tip can roast nicely in a 425°F oven. Cook to an internal temperature of 130°F before resting.

No matter which cooking method you choose, let the meat rest 5-10 minutes before slicing to allow juices to redistribute.

How to Slice Tri-Tip for Maximum Tenderness

Cutting across the grain is key for tender tri-tip, but it can be tricky with the direction of the muscle fibers changing. Here are some tips:

  • Locate the section where the grain changes direction, about halfway up.

  • Slice the roast here to divide it into two halves.

  • Turn each half sideways and slice thin strips across the grain of each one.

  • If any slices seem chewy or stringy, you are cutting with the grain. Rotate 90 degrees to cut properly across.

  • Cut the tapered end slightly thicker since it cooks faster. The wider end can be cut thinner.

Is Tri-Tip Steak or Roast Better?

Tri-tip is sold either as:

  • A full triangular roast

  • Steaks that have been sliced from the whole tri-tip

Both offer the delicious flavor of tri-tip! Choosing between them comes down to your cooking method and serving style.

Tri-tip roast is best for smoking/grilling/baking whole and feeding a crowd. It gives you flexibility to carve thicker or thinner slices.

Tri-tip steak makes portioning easier if making individual plates. The slices are ready to cook as steaks, fajitas, stir frys, etc. You don’t need to slice after cooking.

Popular Tri-Tip Marinades & Rubs

Tri-tip soaks up flavors beautifully. Here are marinades and spice rubs that pair nicely:

  • Santa Maria rub – Salt, pepper, garlic powder. Simple enhances natural flavor.

  • Southwest – Chili powder, cumin, garlic, lime juice, cilantro.

  • Teriyaki – Soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, garlic, sesame oil.

  • Mediterranean – Olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, parsley, garlic.

  • Blackening – Smoked paprika, thyme, onion/garlic powder, cayenne.

  • Coffee rub – Dark roast coffee grounds, chili powder, brown sugar, salt.

Get creative with your own signature blends too. The tri-tip can handle strong doses of seasoning.

What Meat is Similar to Tri-Tip?

If you can’t find tri-tip, these cuts make good alternatives:

  • Flat iron – Also from the bottom sirloin, nearly as lean but a little more uniform in shape.

  • Flank steak – A bit chewier but cheaper. Needs to be sliced very thin across the grain.

  • Skirt steak – Similar marbling and texture. Cooks quickly with high heat.

  • Top sirloin – Comes from higher on the sirloin with good savory flavor. Not as tender.

  • Tri-tip tip – The tapered end only. Shaped like a filet mignon. More cook time.

While their characteristics vary slightly, all these cuts are flavorful and budget-friendly grillers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a tri-tip roast?

A tri-tip roast refers to the whole, intact triangular cut of meat from the bottom sirloin. It weighs around 1.5 – 2.5 pounds before cooking.

Can you grill frozen tri-tip?

It’s best to thaw tri-tip in the refrigerator 1-2 days before grilling. If needed, frozen tri-tip can be grilled but will take 50% longer. Grill over medium heat, rotating frequently for even cooking.

Should you marinate tri-tip before grilling?

Marinating is not required but does add nice flavor. An overnight marinade allows the seasonings to penetrate deep into the meat. Quick marinades of 30-60 minutes also work.

At what temperature is tri-tip done?

Cook tri-tip to 130°F internally for medium-rare or 140°F for medium doneness. The meat will continue cooking after removing from the grill, rising about 5°F-10°F.

Can you cook tri-tip in the oven?

Yes! Roast tri-tip in a 425°F oven for 25-35 minutes until it reaches the desired internal temp. Let it rest before slicing just as you would after grilling.

Discover Delicious Tri-Tip for Yourself!

With its rich flavor, tenderness, and grill-friendly qualities, it’s easy to see why the tri-tip has become so popular among steak lovers. This guide should give you all the details needed to select, prepare, and savor incredible tri-tip yourself.

The next time you visit your local butcher or grocery meat counter, look for tri-tip and take one home. Fire up your grill or smoker and enjoy Santa Maria Valley’s signature cut of beef. Just be sure to save room for seconds!

Know your Beef cuts: Tri Tip


What is another name for tri-tip?

This cut gets its name from its triangle shape and the fact that it’s from the tip of the sirloin. Called by many names such as a California cut, a Santa Maria steak, a Newport steak, a triangle steak and a bottom sirloin butt, this steak is amongst the cheaper cuts of beef.

Is tri-tip a tough cut of beef?

The tri-tip has a good amount of marbling throughout, but is actually quite lean and devoid of any fat caps, so it can be tough if not cooked properly. This is definitely a cut built for grilling and keeping medium rare to medium. Slice against the grain when serving.

What cut is most similar to tri-tip?

The tri-tip and picanha come from the same portion of the cow – the sirloin. The sirloin is a large section of cow meat running from the cow’s mid-back down to the hip. Because the two cuts are more or less in the same area, the two cuts also have comparable flavors and textures.

Why is tri-tip so cheap?

You will see these on sale really cheap! This is because the store is making you pay for all of the waste of unwanted fat. All Tri-Tips should have some fat cap, but the butcher has removed excess fat so you pay only for what is going to be eaten. Untrimmed Tri-Tips can have up to as much as 40-50% extra fat.

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