How to Cut Tri-Tip Steak
Kitchen Expert Alex Alcarraz discuses the correct way to cook a tri-tip steak, as well as the proper method of cutting the steak.
Mastering anything requires a little more digging than anticipated, so in this guide, we will cover much more than just how to cut a tri-tip steak. You will learn about where it comes from, where it is found in the cow, and ways of cooking it. But first, let's discuss a bit about steaks in general.
It can be said that steak is the most ubiquitous cut of beef across the world. Of course, there is more than one single type of steak. Along with different kinds of steaks, you will also find that the same cuts have more than one name! For the sake of nerding out a bit, let's go through a few.
- New York Strip Steak can also be called Strip Steak, and if the bone surrounding the muscle is still present, it is called a Shell Steak.
- Rib Eye Steak can also be called a Delmonico Steak, and if a large piece of the rib bone is attached to it, it is called a Tomahawk Steak. This is a little gimmicky, but fun from time to time.
Knowing that steaks have different names will help to clear up a bit of the mystery behind the tri-tip.
What Is a Tri-Tip Steak?
The best word to describe the tri-tip is: accessible. It is a relatively inexpensive cut that can easily take different flavors through the process of marinating. It is tender with a decent amount of marbling and is readily available in larger supermarkets and butcher shops. Now that we know what it is, you may be wondering where it came from. Let's take a look down memory lane.
In order to find the origin story of this triangular cut of beef, we must make our way to California. In the 1950s, Bob Schultz, a meat manager in a Safeway supermarket, decided to stop cutting up the tri-tip roast for stews and hamburger meat. Knowing the potential of this cut of beef, he began to market it to his customers. From that decision, the boom of the tri-tip steak began.
I mentioned alternate names for steak cuts above and you may have wondered if the tri-tip steak has another name. If so, your guess was correct. This triangular piece of meat is also called the Santa Maria Steak. Back in the mid-19th century, local cowboys in the Santa Maria Valley of California would cook this steak. It used to be cooked over a wood fire and enjoyed simply with salt and pepper.
Where Is the Tri-Tip?
The next part that must be covered is where this muscle can be found within the cow or potential steer. The tri-tip can be found at the bottom of the sirloin, otherwise known as the tip of the sirloin. For reference, the sirloin will be found next to the rump area of the animal.
The fun diagram above shows a representation of standard primal cuts when dealing with beef. Each section above will eventually be divided into several larger muscles like the prime rib, PSMO filet, etcetera.
Fun fact: All quadruped animals raised for food will have the same primal breakdown.
There are only two tri-tips per animal, each weighing about 1.5 to 2.5lbs. Knowing where a cut of meat is located can help you know how to best cook it. For example, beef cuts coming from muscle groups that do a lot of work will always be tough. This will make them best for stews or braises which have low and slow cooking techniques. This explains why beef shanks, brisket, short ribs, chuck, and the lower cuts of the rump area need to be cooked for a long time at low temperatures. You could not cook them within minutes and expect them to be tender. The meat coming from the rib, short loin, and rib primal cuts will be softer and more conducive to high heat and shorter cooking times. Think about a ribeye or filet.
What Is the Right Way to Cook a Tri-Tip?
Above we learned that because the tri-tip is part of a more tender primal cut, it will benefit from a higher temperature and shorter cook time. Tri-tip is largely enjoyed cooked on an open fire, like a gas or charcoal grill. You can simply season with salt, pepper, and a generous amount of olive oil.
The other popular method of cooking this triangular-shaped piece of meat is smoking. This particular cut of beef will require a faster smoking technique. Traditionally, smoking meats is a low and slow process because the proteins used tend come from tougher muscles. Low temperatures on a smoker range from 200℉ to 225℉. That is a general sweet spot that people prefer. With a tri-tip, the temperature on a smoker will remain within the same temperature range with a little wiggle room, depending on preference. The rule of thumb when cooking tri-tip in a smoker is about 30 minutes per pound. An average two-pound tip will cook for about an hour. It is highly recommended to check the doneness of the meat with a meat thermometer. The desired temperature is around 125℉ to 135℉ for a rare to medium-rare doneness.
If you don't own a grill or a smoker, nor have the space to own one, cooking tri-tip in your kitchen is totally fine. Season the meat as you desire and then sear all sides evenly in a pan on the stove. You will want a nice caramel color on the whole surface for maximum flavor. If your pan is ovenproof, throw the whole thing in the oven at 350℉ for about 20 to 30 minutes after searing the meat. Once your tri-tip is oven roasted, use a meat thermometer and check the level of doneness. You want to probe the meat in the thickest part and it should have an internal temperature of 125℉ to 135℉ for a nice rare to medium-rare doneness. Finally rest the tri-tip for about ten minutes before cutting into it. Resting the meat will allow the juices to settle and not spill out when you cut into it.
You can use any marinade you like, if you don't want to go the simple route. A quick tip recipe you can use is:
- 1/2C olive oil
- 2Tb salt
- 1tsp black pepper
- 1Tb dijon mustard
- 2 lemons, zested and juiced
Mix all the above together and pour it on the tri-tip. The meat can sit in the marinade for up to six hours or as little as three hours prior to cooking. When adding salt to a marinade, always err on the side of caution because marinating with too much can over-season the protein. Opt for seasoning when you’re ready to cook if you want to be more conservative. Regardless of how much salt is used in a marinade, taste your final product and season with a sprinkle of salt once the meat has been sliced.
Time to Cut the Tri Tip! But How?
In order to know how to cut a tri-tip, we need to see how the grain of the muscle is positioned.
Above is a simplified version of how the muscle fibers (known as grain) are shaped. The grain direction is like a fan that travels from the most narrow part of the muscle to the rest of the wider area. When using your knife to slice a cut of beef or any other meat, you must cut against the grain. This can sound confusing since going against a linear structure can mean following it to its origin. You need to cut perpendicular to the grain. Let’s see below how this will be tackled.
The blue lines show you where to cut. Begin cutting from the tip and forward. All the cuts are geared toward making the muscle strands shorter and narrower. Doing so will produce a tender texture that is pleasant to the palate that will not be chewy or tough. There is a halfway point where the direction of the cuts must change to address the direction of the grain.
The initial cuts have been made and the halfway point has been reached. At this point, it is important to begin to cut perpendicular from the narrowest top point of the tri-tip to the wider area that is left. Once again, this is done in order to ensure a tender bite and texture across the entire tri-tip when serving. Feel free to turn the tri-tip any way you see fit to make the slicing experience most comfortable. Nevertheless, the structure in slicing must remain the same–always against the grain–changing direction when the halfway point is reached, and continuing to slice against the grain.
Thinner slices will yield a more tender texture. A thicker slice will have a bit more of a bite and chewy texture on the palate. How thin or thick the slices will be left to your personal preference. As long as you are happy with it, cut as thin or as thick as you wish!
My favorite way to enjoy a tri-tip is when it is cooked slowly on a coal or wood fire. The doneness will be a rare to medium-rare consistency. I love chimichurri sauce on all things beef because it offers a contrast of flavors between the richness of the meat and the freshness of the citrus and herbs in the sauce.
You now have all the knowledge you need to try out your first tri-tip! For any questions about what knives would be best to slice your next triangle roast or any other roast, feel free to reach out to a Curated Kitchen Expert. Additionally, cutlery experts are often familiar with cooking professionally, so exchanging a few messages about your next culinary adventure will likely be well received!