Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip
With a truly Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip recipe we season the sirloin roast with salt, pepper and garlic (SPG) and then roast it over open fire. The fire would typically be red oak, on a Santa Maria grill. When cooking a tri tip on a Santa Maria cooker, there are two options: 1) Smoke then sear, or 2) Continually sear a.k.a. flip forever. For the former, raise the adjustable grill grate up high enough for the tri tip to cook slowly and absorb some smoke before searing. Target temp at the grill grate for the smoking part of that method is 200F-250F. For the latter, place the sirloin roast closer to the coals with the temps at the grill grates around 350F-400F. As the tri tip browns, keep flipping so the tri tip doesn’t sear too much. This allows the tri tip to cook internally before the outside is burnt. The only deviation from a traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip recipe is we used pecan wood instead of red oak.
Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip Ingredients:
- 1 Tri tip
- SPG Seasoning (Salt, Pepper and Garlic)
That’s it. Two ingredients – Tri tip and SPG seasoning. At the end of this recipe, we grilled up some tacos, crisping up the tortillas right over the fire. Although you know how to make tacos so I’ll skip those ingredients.
Why is Santa Maria Known for Tri Tip?
For decades the tri tip, which is the bottom triangular portion of the primal sirloin, was tossed into the meat grinder for hamburger. But the pitmasters in the Santa Maria area of Southern California saw low price, high grade protein for their ranch hands and cowboys. When I say Southern California, I’m not talking about Hollywood and Venice Beach. I’m talking about the farming and ranching country 50 something miles north of Santa Barbara. The pitmasters in Santa Maria preferred open air cookers that could raise and lower the grill grates to adjust the temp rather adjusting vents. The beef tri tip was seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic (SPG) and roasted over red oak. This regional mainstay, along with the grill itself, is taking the country by storm. I am a very proud owner of an American made Hooray Grill which is a top line Santa Maria cooker. Here is the grill the day it arrived at my house:
That grill has been well used and well loved since then.
How to Reverse Sear Tri Tip
But what if you don’t have a Santa Maria grill like the Hooray and you want to do some tri-tip? We can help. Reverse sear it by smoking it in a gas grill or charcoal grill set up for two zone or indirect grilling. Or use a dedicated smoker like I did in this Reverse Seared Tri Tip Recipe and sear off at the end. Smoke the tri tip between 200F-275F until the beef gets to 10F-20F degrees short of the desired final doneness temp. Then sear the tri tip to get a nice flavor crust and bring the meat up that final 10F-20F. Incidentally, I cooked that recipe and this one on the same day so all three tri-tips were seared on the Hooray. No use wasting that hot fire!
How to Prepare Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip:
Remove the tri tip from the packaging and carve off the thick layer of fat off the back. You can leave as much as you want on there. I generally take all that off. Despite being sirloin, tri tip is usually pretty well marbled:
Then, season the sirloin roast liberally with the SPG seasoning:
And then take the beef tri tip and drag the fat side and the edges across the SPG seasoning that landed on the cutting board to season all the way around the roast:
Ready for the grill:
Time to build a fire. I set up a Lincoln log style fire stack with some small twigs in the middle. I’m using Butlerwood pecan wood rather than the typical red oak simply because I had a bunch of pecan and it goes really well with beef.
I added a lit fire starting nest and let the flames and the oxygen ignite the stack of pecan wood:
Once the fire turns the pecan wood into hot coals, put the grill grates back over the fire:
Raise the grill grates up to be high enough to get some char, but not sear it off in 60 seconds. Look for the temp at the grill grates to be around 350F-400F and slap down that tri tip:
A legit Santa Maria grill will require some fire management. Even with those grill grates being 2 feet above the coal bed, the fire still had to be banked a little to the side to slow down the cooking process:
We are looking for some browning here, but not 600F searing on a cast iron griddle browning like the wicked awesome crust on these steaks. We want to do some light browning and continue to flip the tri tip over and over. Eventually we get our desired temperature, infuse with some smoke along the way, plus some spectacular browning:
Total cook time for this was between 30-40 minutes. This will vary depending on the size of the tri tip and the heat of the fire.
How to Cook Santa Maria Style on a Conventional Grill:
If you are sporting a traditional charcoal grill, that grill grate isn’t going up and down 2 feet like a Santa Maria cooker. Thus, we have to get our distance to the side. Bank the coals to one side and get some smoke wood going, preferably something in the oak family. Then sear the tri tip off at the edge of the fire, continually flipping to get even browning. On a gas grill, turn on the burner on the far side of the grill and then sear the tri tip at the edge of the hot burner. Even better, if the gas grill has an upper rack, roast on that. Play with the temp of the burner to not cook too quickly or too slowly.
Back to the tri tip recipe at hand.
All the flipping will pull some of the SPG seasoning off. Since tri tip is sliced and served, the ratio of interior meat to outer crust is high. Meaning lots of unseasoned interior meat and not a lot of flavor crust. So a re-application of some seasoning is not a bad idea. Just a dusting here of that SPG seasoning:
The older I get, and the more I cook, the more I realize a little extra seasoning during the cook or right before serving is a good idea.
Continue to sear and flip:
Also, that fat end of the tri tip needs some searing so stand it up on the end and hold it over the hot coals with the tongs:
Once we reach an internal temp of 135F-145F it’s time to remove the beef tri tip from the grill and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes:
Slicing tri tip is a little tricky. For the first slice, go straight up from the long flat side and through the point across from it:
From here we take those two sides of the tri tip, determine the way the grain is running and carve off slices perpendicular to the grain. But before that, we need to check the interior of that steak. Some of you cringed at the 135F-145F. I normally show really rare steaks on this site, but a tri tip roast can be stringy if only cooked rare. I take mine to medium rare:
Then carve each side across the grain:
Serve with some chimichurri because chimi and tri tip were meant to be together:
Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip Summary:
I love this method of cooking. Meat, open fire, constantly fiddling with it until it’s just right. The tri tip is smoky and succulent with that awesome flavor crust. And it’s a wonderful way to feed a crowd for not a lot of money. I love, Love, LOVE cooking like this!
There are many ways to serve beef tri tip. Scroll past the recipe card to see what we did with ours after we got done shooting this recipe.
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Traditional Santa Maria Tri Tip
- 1 Tri tip
- SPG Seasoning
- Trim the fat off the back side of the tri tip leaving a little for flavor
- Prepare the grill for two zone grilling with coals (or lit burner) on one side and no heat on the other. If it's a Santa Maria grill, burn down some red oak or pecan until it's a bed of hot coals and raise the grill grate until the grates are at medium to medium high temp
- Sear the beef tri tip on both sides slowly, adjusting the distance between the hot coals and the tri tip roast to slow roast it rather than sear it too quickly
- Keep flipping and searing until the tri tip reaches 135F-145F. Reapply seasoning after about 15 minutes if desired. Total cook time should be between 30-40 minutes
- With tongs, hold tri tip vertically with the fat end on the grill grates right over the coals to get some char on that end
- When the tri tip reaches 135F-145F remove from the grill and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes
- Slice the tri tip perpendicular from the long flat side straight through the point opposite that side. Then take the two pieces of meat and find the grain in each and cut perpendicular to that grain in thin slices
- Serve with chimichurri
- Make tacos if you want
Using an atomizer, sprits some tortillas and place them, oiled side down right over the coals:
While the tortillas are on the grill, spray the top wit vegetable oil.
Keep checking the underside of the tortillas. When they are brown, remove them from the heat:
Place the tortillas browned side up on a cutting board. Add tri tip, chimi, cheese, salsa, whatever and form into a tacos and then place them back on the grill and brown up the outside of the tacos: