Smoked tri-tip is one of the most flavorful and tender pieces of meat in the beef department and yet it is hard to find in many parts of the country.

It is a triangle shaped piece of meat that usually weighs between 2-3 pounds with just the right amount of fat marbling and no huge pockets of fat that need to be trimmed before you can eat it. Unlike some beef that we put in the smoker, it is best cooked and served medium rare. I have to say that it is a favorite of mine topping even prime rib.

Here are some of the names that it is called (whole or cut into steaks) in different parts of the country:

  • Tri-tip
  • Bottom Sirloin
  • Santa Maria Steak
  • Newport Steak
  • Triangle Steak

I have purchased and smoked four of these over the past week in preparation for this newsletter and I can tell you that they are very easy to prepare and smoke and can be done in around 2 hours. They are also very versatile in that they can handle high heat as well as the low heat with no degradation of quality.

Many folks grill these but, like prime rib, I think the smoke adds a little heaven to something that is already quite wonderful and it gives us something a little more “fancy” to smoke when the occasion calls for it.

Just a word on the fat cap: If you are grilling this piece of meat then it is best to leave the fat cap intact but the fat cap doesn't really render in the low heat of the smoker and the short amount of time that it is in there so when smoking, it is best to remove it or let your butcher do it for you.

Now let's move right into how to prepare, smoke and serve this wonderful piece of meat!

What to Purchase

We have pretty much covered these basics in the preceding paragraphs but I would like to add that as with any beef, look for deep red color and pay special attention to the “sell by” dates on the packaging if you buy meat that is already packaged and waiting.

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Only you know the eating habits of your particular family and guests.. in my house a three pound tri-tip will feed my family of 5 but then 3 of those are women who don't eat as much as I do. If you have a table full of men, older boys or women who are big eaters, you may want to make a little extra.

A Few Words on Grain Direction

Sometimes tri-tips will be a little longer than the ones that I get locally and will include a section that has grain that runs perpendicular to the rest of the meat. My butcher cuts this part off and only gives me the piece with all the grain running the same direction. This is perfectly fine with me but it is wise to look closely at the grain direction to make sure that you are well aware of which way it is running. You might consider sticking a toothpick or some other marker into the meat to help distinguish the grain direction since it will be hard to tell once you put the rub on the meat.

How to Prepare Tri-tip

This is the easy part.. remove the fat cap if the butcher did not do it for you. This allows more access to the smoke and it means you can have a nice, edible crust all the way around the meat with no fat to mess with.

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I highly recommend my rub recipe on this piece of meat.. like I said earlier, I have made four of these in the past week and I used my rub on all of them. The flavor is just the perfect mix of seasoning to give you a really nice crust, that pop of flavor that you desire on the outside without marring or covering up the wonderful flavor of the beef. My rub is the new salt in our house and it's not overly salty so it's a perfect “use everywhere” seasoning. In fact, it may not be salty enough for some but you can always add a little salt to taste if you need more.

To season the meat, the easiest method is to place it down in a large ziploc bag, pour about ¼ cup of Worcestershire sauce down in the bag with about 6 TBS of my rub recipe. Close the bag leaving just a small amount of air in the bag. Roll and toss the bag to coat the meat with the rub. The Worcestershire adds some nice flavor as well and gives the meat a wet coating so the rub will stick.

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You can also apply a paper-thin coating of regular yellow mustard if you prefer and sprinkle on the rub making sure to coat all sides just enough so that you can no longer see the meat but not clumped on. The mustard creates a stick surface for the rub to adhere to and the end result does not taste like mustard so no worries.

I recommend applying the rub the night before and letting it sit on the meat all night but it will also work well if you want to apply it just minutes before smoking the meat.

Once they are all seasoned up and ready to go, place them on a a Bradley rack for easy transport to and from the smoker.

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I used my propane smoker for the first two and my wood smoker for the 2nd two and I have to say that there was very little difference in flavor. The wood smoker did produce a much better smoke ring as you would expect but as most of us know, a smoke ring is not an indicator of “better” smoke flavor but rather just an indicator that it was cooked in an environment where some type of combustion was taking place such as in burning wood or even in burning gas..

Note: Smoke alone will not create a smoke ring.. there must be enough combustion taking place to have a smoke ring. I can create fairly nice smoke rings in my propane smoker but usually not in the Bradley electric smoker. When combustion happens it creates chemicals and gases that interact with the meat to prevent the meat from turning from it's usual red/pink color to its usual brown or cooked color. This same effect is seen in meats that have been cured with nitrites and nitrates such as hotdogs, ham, bologna, etc.

How to Smoke Tri-tip

Once the tri-tip is seasoned up real nice, get the smoker ready by heating it up to about 225-240°. Once the smoker is hot and smoke is starting to flow out of the smoker, place the meat directly on the grate and quickly close the door so you don't lose any more heat than you have to.

You don't need to baste, mop or do anything further to the meat unless you are just dead set on doing so. Most normal sized cuts will reach the upper end of medium rare in about 2 hours. It is perfectly ok to run your smoker as hot as 240° or even slightly higher if you prefer to get it done a little faster however, be sure to use a digital probe meat thermometer to monitor the temperature so you can get it perfectly done. Using the touch method is flawed since there are so many variables between different cuts of meat, different thicknesses, etc. Using a digital probe meat thermometer will allow you to get it right every time without fail.

In this picture, I am using the Maverick ET-732 and I love it. The main unit stays with the smoker and the receiver goes with me in the house, the garage, around the yard, whereever I happen to go and I always know the temperature of my smoker and my food. As you can see, the smoker is ticking along at about 225°F at this moment and my tri-tip is at 126°F in the center of the thickest part of the meat.

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Remove the meat immediately when it reaches the goal temperature. Slice across the grain at a 45° angle at about ¼ inch thick.

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What Kind of Wood is Best?

Traditionally, you would smoke tri-tip with red oak but I didn't have any so I just used pecan and cherry. I used Hickory and cherry on the first couple that I did this week and they were very good also. I love the way that cherry goes with beef and if you want to add in some hickory or pecan or even some mesquite then that's ok as well.

How to Know When It's Done

The really cool thing about tri-tip is its versatility when it comes to how you cook it. Some folks like to grill it but my absolute favorite way to cook it is in the smoker and I think you will love it too once you try it. The low heat environment allows the meat to cook more slowly which naturally dries the meat out less, gives the meat more time with the smoke, and allows your preferred doneness to be more prevalent in the meat.

When grilling the tri-tip or any steak for that matter, it is normal for a medium rare to be very brown on the outside with a narrow band of pink in the center. When smoking, this band of pink in the center will usually be larger and the done part toward the outside will be less done than it would be on the grill in most cases. This slower method of cooking and lower heat does wonders for this cut and you really have to experience it to fully understand what I mean.

I tend to cook tri-tip to about 140-145 to get my medium rare rather than my normal 135 in the center that I would want with most steaks due to the phenomenon that I described above. At 135°, when cooking/smoking at 225-240° the meat will be about 85-90% pink in the center which seems like more of a rare to most people. I like it that way, but my family prefers it slightly more done that that. Even at 145° in the center it is a nice, beautiful pink in a large portion of the center and is about as close to perfect as you can get in my opinion.

Tip: Use your own judgement when it comes to the doneness that you prefer.. if you do happen to remove it too soon and it is too pink for some (something I can't imagine) go ahead and slice it, lay the pieces out flat on a cookie sheet and put it under a broiler for a minute or so for those who need it more done. Leave the oven door open and just watch it so you don't overdo it.

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Summary

  • Purchase meat that is deep red and have the butcher remove fat cap for smoking it
  • Take note of grain direction in meat and mark with toothpicks if necessary
  • Make a batch of Jeff's rub and apply to meat
  • Place in fridge overnight or smoke immediately
  • Smoke directly on smoker grate at 225-240° F for about 2 hours
  • Use a digital probe meat thermometer to monitor the temperature of the meat
  • Remove the meat when it reaches medium rare or your preferred doneness. 135-140° F is about perfect for me
  • Slice into 1/4 inch pieces across the grain at a 45 degree angle and serve immediately

Notes

  • Use red oak for smoking wood if possible for traditional experience
  • The red juice that runs out when you cut into it is not blood.. it's just meat juices
  • If you slice the cooked meat real thin, it makes a great sandwich
  • Serve strips of the meat on top of a nice salad
  • Use the meat in you killer chili recipe.. tons of flavor and no grease!
  • Slice across the grain for best tenderness
  • If you like to sear the outside of your beef, do it after it smokes, not before. (reverse sear)

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Jeff’s Smoking Meat Books

smoking-meat-book-coverSmoking Meat: The Essential Guide to Real Barbecue – The book is full of recipes and contains tons of helpful information as well. Some have even said that “no smoker should be without this book”!

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