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If you're from outside of Santa Maria, California, you may not have heard of tri-tip, the large, tender, triangular muscle cut from the bottom sirloin of a steer. If you're from Santa Maria, on the other hand, you can bet your bowl of pinquito beans that you've had more than your share of the cut.
It's the primary cut used for Santa Maria-style Barbecue (check out James Boo's article on the subject here), a regional barbecue style that's not well known outside of central California, and, by some standards, wouldn't qualify as "real" barbecue at all.
See, Santa Maria-style barbecue is technically a fast-cooking method—that is, the meat is cooked over an open pit burning with red oak and cooked just until medium-rare. No low-and-slow smoking, no breakdown of connective tissue (which, luckily, tri-tip is very low in), no fancy barbecue sauces. Just seasoned beef, grilled, sliced, and served with a bowl of native pinquito beans, a tomato salsa, and buttery garlic bread.
Sounds pretty damn good to me.
A versatile cut, it's also often used in competition chili for its leanness (though why that's a requisite for competition chili is beyond me).
Also Sold As: Santa Maria Steak, Newport Steak (when cut into individual steaks), aguillote baronne (France), punta de anca, punta de Solomo, or colita de cuadril (Latin America), maminha (Brazil).
Where It's Cut From: The bottom sirloin, from the muscle group that controls the steers back legs (it applies its force to the steer's kneecap).
As you can see, it's a pretty lean cut. Texturally, it resembles a flat cut brisket, though it doesn't have nearly as much outside fat. Flavorwise, I'd peg it closer to a eye round roast. It's not huge on beef flavor or fat, so it's a generally good idea to season it generously and serve it with a flavorful sauce.
If you have a choice between Prime and Choice grades, I'd go with the prime—this is a case where you're going to want all the fat you can get to stave off the dry-meat problem.
The traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue calls for black pepper, salt, and perhaps a bit of garlic rubbed onto the meat before cooking. Personally, I like to go with a somewhat heartier-flavored spice rub with paprika, a bit of cumin, cayenne, and some brown sugar. I find that the flavor really helps boost the meat once sliced.
Because of its tapered shape, this is an ideal cut of meat if you want to serve a family that likes their meat cooked to different donenesses. The narrow tip will cook faster than the fatter butt-end, giving you a range of temperatures to choose from.
Just like when cooking a big fat steak, the key to even cooking, juicy meat, and a nice crust is to start the sucker over the cooler side of the grill with the lid on (you can add some soaked wood chunks to the coals—it takes well to smoke), and cook it to within 5 to 10°F of it's target pull temperature (which, in turn is 5°F lower than it's target final temperature). For medium-rare, that's about 115° to 120°F.
After that, slide it on over to the hot side and cook it until nicely charred all around. Pull the sucker off, let him rest for about 10 minutes (it is, after all, a big cut of meat), then slice thinly against the grain with a sharp knife.
You can serve it with whatever kind of sauce you like. The traditionalist in me says to go with a tomato and celery-studded Santa Maria-style Salsa. The who-cares-as-long-as-it-tastes-good-person in me often tells the traditionalist in me to shut the hell up.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.