Santa Maria–Style Tri-Tip Recipe

Photo Courtesy of Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

We are moving into prime grilling season and there are many different styles from around the country to add to your repertoire this season. Sometimes a barbecue style originates in a very small geographic region. Such is the case with tri-tip from Santa Maria, California.This small central coast town is famous for this specific cut of beef.The tasty, triangular-shaped roast comes from the bottom sirloin, weighs about 2 pounds, and is well-marbled and ideal for feeding four people, notes meat expert and cookbook author Bruce Aidells, who created this recipe for Real Food.

Typical recipes are pretty basic, with the meat coated with a rub of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder. Aidells prefers to kick up the flavor in two steps. He marinates it overnight in a Mexican-inspired marinade (Santa Maria has a sizable Hispanic population that has influenced the cooking).The next day, pat the meat dry, coat it with a dry rub, and throw it on the grill. If time does not permit, you can simply coat the meat with the rub and grill, but allow two hours for the spices to work their way into the meat. In Santa Maria, tri-tip is often cooked directly over the coals, but Aidells prefers to sear the meat first and then cook it indirectly to reduce the chance of burning. Plan ahead for overnight prep/marinating if you can—plus you are ahead of the game in pulling dinner together.  

For an authentic Santa Maria–style barbecue experience, serve the roast with cooked pinto beans and pico de gallo (salsa made with fresh tomatoes, onion, cilantro and jalapeño chilies). A bowl of freshly made guacamole never hurts. Add a stack of warm corn tortillas. Looking for a wine pairing? Serve Syrah with this dish as this full-bodied wine stands up well to the assertive flavors of this recipe.

Santa Maria–Style Tri-Tip 

Makes 4 servings 

1 tri-tip beef roast (about 2 to 212 pounds), fat trimmed to 14 inch 

12 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 
14  cup fresh lime juice
14  cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
14 cup minced white onion or shallots 
1  teaspoon Tabasco
2  tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin 
1  tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
2  tablespoons ground chilies, such as ancho, new Mexico, or California
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper 
14 cup olive oil 

Dry rub
12 teaspoon ground cumin 
2 teaspoons ground chilies such as ancho, new Mexico, or California 
1 teaspoon dark brown sugar 
12 teaspoon garlic powder 
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

1. For the marinade: Combine ingredients in a bowl and whisk until salt and sugar dissolve. Using a sharp meat fork or skewer, puncture meat all over on both sides. Place in a 1-gallon zipper-lock plastic bag. Pour over marinade. Seal bag, shake, and turn so meat is coated. Place bag in a bowl in case it leaks and refrigerate overnight, up to 30 hours. Turn and shake bag occasionally. 

2. For the dry rub: 2 hours before grilling, combine ingredients in a small bowl until well-blended. Remove roast from marinade and discard marinade. Pat meat dry with paper towels and coat with rub on all sides. Place on a tray or platter and rest at room temperature at least 1 hour, up to 2 hours. 

3. To set up grill for indirect cooking, place coals on half of a covered grill and heat until glowing hot. If using a gas grill, preheat by turning all burners on high heat; when hot, turn off middle section. 

4. Keeping spice coating intact, lay meat directly over heat. Sear 2 to 3 minutes on both sides then transfer to unlit area of grill. Cover and grill-roast, checking internal temperature after 15 minutes. When it registers 120°F to 125°F, it will produce a mostly medium-rare roast after resting (thinner areas may be more medium). If you prefer rare meat, as I do, remove roast when internal temperature is 115°F to 120°F. 

5. Transfer roast to a cutting board and loosely cover with foil. Let rest at least 5 minutes, up to 15 minutes. Slice across grain into 14-inch-thick slices and serve. 

Cook’s Note: It is important to let meat rest after being removed from the heat source. Two things happen: Juices are reabsorbed from the surface to the interior, and the carry-over heat causes the internal temperature to rise 5 to 20 degrees. 

Nutrition info (per serving): Calories 403 (113 from fat); fat 13g (sat. 4g); Chol 157mg; Sodium 787mg; Carb 5g; Fiber 1g; Protein 64g 

Ready to get grilling? Find more grilling inspiration and delicious food and drink samples at the Minnesota Monthly Grill Fest May 13-14 at CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints.

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.