A Santa Maria Original: From Write-Off to Mainstay

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Until about the mid-1950s, butchers generally ground up this boomerang-shaped cut from the bottom portion of the sirloin region and sold it as hamburger meat. Legend has it that Bob Schutz, owner of Southern California’s Santa Maria Market, changed all that when a surplus of this lean, boneless cut showed up. Rather than grind it all, he prepared it as a steak — and history was made. Its robust flavor and economical price vaulted the tri-tip to the status of a Central California mainstay, and it’s been a staple on regional menus ever since.

Is it a Steak or a Roast?

The generous size and serious value of a tri-tip often leads to the misnomer of “poor man’s brisket.” But briskets are cut from the chuck region at the front of the cow, not the sirloin closer to the tail. Like its close cousin, top sirloin, the American Wagyu Tri-Tip is more akin to steak, no matter how you slice it. Some restaurants will label it Newport Steak when they slice it into individual portions, and the French use the elegant name aiguillette baronne. You may also see it called a California cut, a bottom sirloin butt or a Santa Maria steak.

How to Cook a Tri-Tip Like a Champ

The traditional Santa Maria method of cooking a tri-tip involves red oak wood chips and a special grill. A Santa Maria grill has a large open platform for the charcoal and a grill that can be raised or lowered to control the cooking heat. This style grew out of an older tradition of mid-19th-century ranchers roasting meat over open pits for their herders. The authentic Santa Maria meal is a grilled tri-tip is paired with pinquito beans, salsa and buttered bread, just as those ranchers did. The Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce had the recipe copyrighted in 1978 to preserve its authenticity.

Barbecue champion Steph Franklin says tri-tip is the No. 1 protein requested from his Southern California catering company, Simply Marvelous BBQ. That lends credence to his claim about preparing it: “I cook it the best of anyone.” Shake up your routine with SRF BBQ Brisket Rub that Franklin developed on your tri-tip. Cayenne, cumin and paprika deliver complex flavor and a little kick.

He prefers the high heat (300 to 350°F) of a smoker to get the job done in under an hour, pulling it out when it reaches an internal temp of 135°F.

“It caramelizes in a hot and fast environment, even though you’re not grilling,” he says. “It plumps up nicely and develops depth of flavor.”

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If you’re not a smoker fan, try these other cooking methods to find your tri-tip mojo:

  • Two-Zone Grill Method - Flex your gas or charcoal skills with our tips for how to grill a tri-tip to juicy perfection. Take particular care to slice against the grain, which can be tricky with this triangular beauty.

  • Reverse Sear Method – A thick cut of American Wagyu beef like the tri-tip benefits from a slower rise to the desired internal temp, then a finishing sear to seal in the flavor. You can achieve this indoors, with an oven and cast iron pan, or outdoors on a two-zone grill setup.
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