Santa Maria Tri-Tip

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Santa Maria tri-tip is a great meat for grilling and roasting. You can rub it with seasonings and grill it on wood chips for a smoky flavor that is perfect with side dishes and wine. Tri-tip is a steak that is triangle-shaped.

It’s popularly known as Santa Maria Steak because Santa Maria California is where the steak first became popular.

What Makes Smoked Tri-Tip Great?

It’s been said that the first people to try tri-tip cuts were workers on ranches and other parts of California. At the time, this cut of the meat was considered less fatty and therefore less flavorful than other parts.

However, people quickly found that with the right seasonings and grilling method, the inherently tender tri-tip can be even more flavorful than more expensive cuts of meat.

You will usually rub the steak first with some seasonings such as salt, black pepper, and garlic salt. The meat is easy to rub whatever kind of seasonings you want to put on it, so feel free to experiment and try many different seasonings.

Tri-tip is a very tender cut of meat and mild in flavor. Since it’s not overwhelming, it’s easy to pair with side dishes and is a favorite cut of meat for many people.

How to Cook Tri-Tip

Tri-tip is one of the best meats to cook because it’s fat and juicy. You can choose your own marinade or use a classic Santa Maria rub. You can make your own Santa Maria rub or buy something that is premade. A typical Santa Maria rub will have at least salt, pepper, and garlic. The garlic will typically be garlic salt or garlic powder.

If you want to add some additional seasonings or try other rubs, try buying one with sugar, cayenne, and dried herbs. You can also try a blend of paprika or chili powder if you want the meat to be spicy.

How Much Tri-Tip Should I Buy?

This depends on how many people you are serving and if you want any for leftovers. Tri-tip roasts usually range from about 2.5 pounds to 4 pounds. It’s recommended you buy about half a pound of meat per person.

Try to look one for well-marbled fat as this will give you the most flavor. Tri-tip cuts sometimes need to be bought at specialty shops or butchery shops. If you can’t find tri-tip, look for a thick London broil or a sirloin steak.

Tips for Grilling the Perfect Tri-Tip Steak

Here are some basic tips you can follow to make sure you grill your steak in a way to keep it fresh and moist.

  • Let the meat come to room temperature before you begin cooking it. This will usually take about an hour for a large piece of meat.
  • Season it in advance so that the seasoning can penetrate the meat. This will also make sure the flavor of the meat is enhanced. You can marinate the meat about 3 hours before preparing. If you are looking for a stronger flavor, you can marinate the meat for up to 3 days.
  • Tri-tip is very fatty which means it can cause flare-ups on the grill easier than other meat. Make sure you watch it as you grill it and keep the dripping to a minimum. The best way to do is this to move the meat away from the direct flames.
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure you don’t overcook the meat. The best temperatures are 140 degrees for medium, 130 degrees for medium-rare, and 120 degrees for rare. It’s hard to accurately read the temperature of this meat without a thermometer.
  • Allow the meat to rest for 5-10 minutes after cooking so that juices spread evenly. Remove the meat just right before the desired temperature is met as the tri-tip will continue cooking even after removing it from the grill. For a larger piece of meat, you might need to leave it resting for 15 minutes.

Why Is It important to Let the Meat Rest?

After spending time in the kitchen and over the grill, you are probably ready to eat. This makes letting the rest sometimes hard. However, it’s a very important step. As you cook, the water in the fat of the meat will begin to compress and contract as it’s exposed to heat.

When you slice or eat the meat right after removing it from heat, the water will run out of the meat leaving it dry and chewy. By allowing the meat to rest you will allow the water that is compressed to be reabsorbed into the muscles and proteins in the meat.

Then, when you cut it, the juice will not run out. You will be left with meat that is juicier.

How to Cut and Serve the Tri-Tip Steak

It’s best to slice the tri-tip very thinly against the grain. This shortens the muscle fibers considerably and makes them much easier to chew. Remember that the tri-tip has two different grain connections that intersect at the top, this is the top point of the triangle.

If you slice the meat in the wrong direction you end up with very chewy pieces of meat. Also, cut the meat at a slight angle.

We’ve written an entire guide for how to cut tri tip properly for more knowledge on this topic.

Ideas for Sides

Tri-tip is very versatile and can be served with a variety of side dishes. Just make sure everything you make compliments and doesn’t take away from the flavor of the tri-tip.

You can also stick with the Santa Maria theme and serve typical BBQ side dishes such as:

  • Pinquito beans
  • Green salad with a simple dressing
  • Grilled bread with butter or other spread
  • Fresh salsa

You can also make some barbecue sauce or other dipping sauces to have with the meat.

Can I Still Cook Tri-Tip if I Don’t Have a Grill?

This is a very popular question. Many people don’t have grills and still want to cook tri-tip. You can still cook tri-tip in the oven very easily. You can start in the same way that you would when grilling the meat by seasoning it with your chosen rub. Massage it into the roast and allow the seasoned meat to come to room temperature before cooking.

Rub softened butter on the meat and sear it in a pan on the stovetop. Cast iron or carbon steel work the best I’d stay away from nonstick pans. After searing it, cook it at 350 for about 20 minutes. It may need a little longer depending on how you seared it and what kind of pan you used.

The internal temperature should be 120 degrees for a rare roast, 130 degrees for medium-rare, and 140 degrees for medium.

Santa Maria Tri-Tip

Our take on the all time classic tri-tip recipe!
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Resting Time for Rub 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 50 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Beef


  • 1 tri-tip roast 3-4 lbs

Rub Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp dried sage


  • In a bowl, mix together rub ingredients.
  • Sprinkle rub on all sides of the tri-tip roast. Coat generously and massage the rub into the beef.
  • Wrap the seasoned tri-tip in plastic wrap (or cover with foil) and let it rest at room temperature for at least 1-2 hours.
  • Preheat grill to 450°F.
  • Sear seasoned tri-tip on all sides, typically rotating after about 3-4 minutes per side. Pay attention to which side of the roast is fattiest – this side will tend to drip into your flame more and might cause flare ups.
  • Remove roast from your grill and place on a plate. Change temperature of grill to 250°F. (You can substitute an oven at 250ºF for this part if you prefer to not use the grill)
  • Once the grill is steady at 250°F, place roast back onto grill. Cook until roast reaches your desired doneness. Typically Santa Maria Tri-Tip is served medium rare (take off grill after 130°F internal temperature is reached) or medium (after 140°F is reached). This phase can take about 30-50 minutes depending on how large your tri-tip is.
  • Remove from grill and allow to rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes before slicing. Slice, serve, and enjoy.
Keyword Santa Maria Tri-Tip, Tri-Tip
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Final Thoughts

Tri-tip is a pretty easy recipe that doesn’t take too much time or effort. It could usually be grilled in an hour or less if you already have the meat seasoned and prepared. Tri-tip usually also comes with thinner and thicker pieces due to be cut between the ribs and back of the cow.

This is perfect if you some eaters in your home that prepare more well-done meat and others who want theirs rarer. The variety in the thickness of the meat will allow everyone to have something they like.

If you happen to have a pellet grill, check out our tips for how to grill the perfect pellet grill tri tip next!