The Untold Truth Of Tri-Tip Steak

Tri-tip is a popular cut of steak now, but it hasn't always been a staple at meat counters and butcher shops. If you haven't grilled it yourself or ordered it off a menu before, according to The Spruce Eats, tri-tip is part of the bottom sirloin cut. Part of its popularity comes from its flavor – it has a good ratio of meat to fat, and it's as flavorful as other cuts like ribeyes, but usually much less expensive.

Also sometimes called California cut, tri-tip steak has roots in Santa Maria, a city close to California's Central Coast. According to Santa Maria Valley's website, the tradition of Santa Maria-style barbecue began in the mid-1800s with roasting sirloin over a red oak fire. However, in the 1950s, tri-tip became popular in the valley when Bob Schutz, the then co-owner of the Santa Maria Market, introduced it to the locals. It quickly became a hit in the region before spreading to other areas of the country, which is why Santa Maria is credited with its origins, and why it's still sometimes known as Santa Maria Steak.

Why wasn't tri-tip popular before the 1950s?

It's not like tri-tip didn't exist until the '50s, so why wasn't it popular before then? According to the Santa Maria Valley website, butchers used to think that selling this cut was a mistake. As the name suggests, tri-tip comes from the tip of the sirloin, and there's only one tri-tip on every side of beef. Since butchers could only get two tri-tips from a whole cow, they considered it a waste of space to display just a few cuts of meat. Instead, tri-tip was usually turned into ground beef or chopped up and sold as meat for stews.

Schutz changed this in Santa Maria, though. According to Barbecue Bible, Schutz was a butcher who had the idea of roasting the tri-tip instead of grinding it or chopping it up. He used a spit-roast to cook it, and when it was finally finished, the flavor was impressive enough for Santa Maria locals to start buying and grilling tri-tip steaks.

The best way to cook tri-tip

According to The Spruce Eats, tri-tip steaks fare best when you stick to relatively quick cooking methods like grilling, pan-searing, and broiling. They also recommend marinating the steak to help it stay tender if you plan on cooking it past medium doneness. If you decide to grill it and want to go the traditional route, according to HuffPost, in California it's common to use local red oak wood for grilling tri-tip. It gives the meat just a hint of smoky flavor, and you can sometimes find red oak chips online if you don't live in California.

Keep in mind too that you might see tri-tip sold in different ways. According to Santa Maria Valley's website, you might see the entire triangular cut from the sirloin packaged as a small roast, or sliced into tri-tip steaks. And when you're slicing, keep an eye out for the two different grains – half of the muscle fibers run vertically, while the other half run horizontally. Slice against the grain for the most tender, tasty meat.