For a more in-depth discussion on our preferred methods for preparing and cooking this cornerstone cut from the heart of LMC country, read our Tri-Tip Primer following these recipes!
Cuts like tri-tip are active semi-load bearing muscles consisting of long striated muscle tissue. Also found in Flank, Skirt, Bavette/Flap and to some extent Hangar, this type of muscle can be tough if not handled with care. From the cutting board to the grill and even after the cooking is done, proper technique will greatly improve your end results.
By marinating your tri-tip overnight in an acid-based marinade like red wine vinegar or even a dry red wine, the acid just slightly “cooks” the meat while it marinates, similar to a ceviche. The acidic environment, breaks down muscle fibers enough to tenderize the meat, resulting in a less “chewy” bite of meat.
Adding salt to the marinade also helps relax the tissue but more importantly, salt draws in flavors via osmosis, which is where adding oil to your marinade ruins everything.
Oil disrupts the effectiveness of your marinade and makes it more difficult for the salt, acid and flavorings to penetrate. Like any fats, the volatile oils in herbs and spices responsible for the ingredients flavor (actually their smell but we’ll save that for another post) are hydrophobic. Meaning, fats will sit on the surface of the meat as opposed to penetrating the meat. I know, I know. Most recipes online call for EVOO or similar. Well, most recipes online are…I’ll say it…wrong!
Fats attach onto water molecules like when a salad dressing separates into fat and liquid. With a salad dressing, you need to emulsify the fat and liquid with the help of an emulsifying agent like mustard or egg yolk. These ingredients give the oil something to hang onto, joining the fats and liquid. So while you can rely on emulsifiers in a salad dressing, with a marinade you need the acid, salt, and flavoring components to penetrate and oil just gets in the way.
Because the even and thorough distribution of flavoring components is a big deal with larger unevenly-shaped cuts like tri-tip, this is especially important. So just remember, Salt and Acid can come to the party, but Oil stays home.
We have 3 preferred methods for cooking Grass-fed tri-tip mostly using indirect or ambient heating, but first you need to decide which of the following is best suited to the method you will be using:
A. Begin with a high-temperature direct heat “sear” and finish the cook at a lower temperature portion of the grill. We use this method when cooking on a wood-buring or charcoal grill.
B. Begin at a low temperature ambient or indirect heat and then finish with a high temperature direct-heat sear. We use this method when cooking with a pellet smoker or when using an oven.
Why we use indirect heat for most of the cooking time?
Because of its irregular shape and composition of the muscle fibers, the tri-tip greatly benefits from an extended cooking method, 95% of which is done using indirect heat. This is especially important when cooking Grassfed beef, because unlike conventionally-raised and grain finished beef, Grassfed beef has far less exterior and intramuscular fat to insulate the meat, making Grassfed beef far easier to overcook.
Using indirect heat allows the meat to come to the desired internal temperature much slower than direct-heat methods, allowing the meat to cook more evenly and the chef to have far more control over the rate at which this happens.
You can accomplish this using several methods which we’ll discuss below, but the most important principle to understand is that you want the heat to slowly and evenly transfer through the roast, so that the thin end-portions do not cook exponentially faster than the thicker section in the middle.
Here’s a brief run-down of each method
Oven: Starting high and finishing low
The tri-tip is a roast, so basic roast technique applies. Bring roast to room-temp and preheat oven to 275°-300°. While the oven preheats, season your tri-tip and heat a large cast iron skillet on the stove-top until it’s smoking hot.
By the time the oven is up to temp, the skillet will be ready as well. Add about a tablespoon of neutral oil to the pan and sear your roast on both sides until it is evenly caramelized on each edge/side.
Throw a few cloves of garlic and a sprig of thyme into the skillet and pop it into the oven until the internal temperature is about 10°-15° below your desired internal temp. This should take about 30-40 minutes depending on what temp you’d prefer, but as always use a digital probe thermometer and be sure to remove from the heat 10°-15° below your desired internal temp so it can finish while it rests.
You should never rely solely on timing. All ovens and heating sources are slightly different and many factors can alter cooking times.
Charcoal/Wood/Gas Grill: Starting high and finishing low
Same basic method as the oven, start high and finish low. This time however, instead of searing on a cast-iron pan, you will first grill the roast on both sides for a few minutes on the hottest portion of the grill or directly over embers.
Then, you will move the roast to the cooler section of the grill and cover it with the lid until your desired internal temperature is achieved. When using a Santa Maria-style grill, instead of moving the tri-tip you would just raise the grate several inches above the heat, turning every 10-15 minutes to ensure even heating.
Again, remove roast from the heat 10°-15° below your desired internal temp, then allow to rest.
Pellet Smoker and the “Reverse Sear”: Starting low and finishing high
This might be the only time we’d use the reverse sear method, just because it’s very difficult to get a good char on your tri-tip after it has been in a smoker for an hour or so, but you can get a decent sear on it. Which this method you will cook the tri-tip most of the way on the smoker and finish it with a hot blast on the cast-iron pan. Make sure to open a few windows though, because in order to get a good sear, you want that pan to be hot enough to send smoke signals to the moon.
And while we’d never use a pellet smoker over a Santa Maria Grill or charcoal grill, we do enjoy them for their convenience and ease of use. Using a pellet smoker is an excellent way to control the temperature throughout the cooking process and still get a nice smokey flavor. Unlike the charcoal grill, you can set the pellet smoker to a precise temperature, which will be maintained until the desired internal temperature is achieved.
Keep in mind when considering your desired final internal temperature, with this method you need to take into account the temperature increasing from the time you take it out of the smoker, through the sear, and then finally as the tri-tip rests. So it’s best to err on the side of caution and remove the roast from the smoker about 10°-15° lower than you normally would when starting the resting period.
After removing from the smoker, the most important things to remember, are to make sure the pan or you will be finishing on is extremely hot and that your roast is free of any surface moisture. These two steps will ensure you get the best sear possible on your tri-tip, with minimal increase to the internal core temperature.
This is a fairly straight-forward rule and can be applied to almost any cut. However, a prolonged resting period combined with using a sharp knife to cut thin slices against the grain after the rest, benefits the tri-tip more than almost any other cut. This is due to the irregular shape and unique structure of the muscle tissue with those relatively large diameter and long muscle striations running throughout.
So, rest your trip-tip as long as you can but for a minimum of 25% of the total cooking time before you slice it.
Notice the direction of the grain changes as the triangular portion elongates into the more tubular section of the tri-tip? This needs to be taken into account when slicing the tri-tip. For this reason, you must adjust the direction of your knife as you slice to ensure you are always cutting against the grain.
Due to those large tuberous muscle fibers and the lean Grassfed beef, it’s a good ideal to slice these trig-tips as thinly as you can. This is where having a very sharp slicing knife comes in. A sharp knife makes for thin clean cuts.
Because making knife adjustments while slicing can be cumbersome, it might be easier for some folks to properly navigate the inconsistent grain direction by simply separating the roast into two sections.
To separate, run your knife along the “belly” of the elongated section from the tip and back towards the triangular section until you meet the other end at the “tip” of the triangular section. You should now have a triangular portion and an elongated portion that tapers at each end. Thinly slice the elongated section at a bias starting at one end and work your way to the other. For the triangular portion, you will start at the tip of the triangle and work your way down to the base.