Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip

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Santa Maria style tri-tip recipe perfect for grilling during barbecue season! A smoky, sweet and spicy rub adds instant flavor to this tender cut of beef.

Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip

Santa Maria style tri-tip takes a tender, and mild cut of beef then coats the roast with a blast of spices on the surface for maximum flavor. Instead of grilling the usual chicken, ribs or sausages, why not try this under-appreciated yet delicious steak!

When Jason and I attended college at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, we quickly learned that one of the culinary delights on the Central Coast of California was the famous beef tri-tip cut. Downtown San Luis Obispo has numerous restaurants like Firestone Grill that offer the seasoned hunks of meat on their menus, often thinly sliced and served on a soft French roll and drenched in BBQ sauce. Yum!

Since graduating and migrating South over a decade ago, we haven’t had much opportunity to get some authentic Santa Maria style tri-tip as often as we would like. Many local BBQ restaurants fall short of the ones we had in San Luis Obispo. I’m sharing my tasty tips for making this flavorful beef right at home.

Tri tip cut of beef seared with black marks on a bbq grill

Barbecued tri-tip is said to have originated from the Central Coast, where the workers on the ranches were given less tender cuts of meat that were thought to be flavorless. However, with the proper seasoning and cooking time, people realized that tri-tip could be prepared just as flavorful as the more expensive and desired cuts of meat.

The area of Santa Maria, California has now become known for this kind of barbecue delight, and visitors to this beautiful coastline make sure to grab some tri-tip during their visits.

How to cook a tri-tip roast

Sometimes it helps to have friends in the right places, Jason’s friend Mike happens to live in Santa Maria, and he helped recommend a few cooking tips. I wanted to infuse extra flavor in the crust of the tri-tip meat, so I created a smoky, sweet and spicy rub for my Santa Maria style tri-tip recipe.

Homemade dry rub blend of spices in a wooden jar and on a spoon

Spice Rub

A blend of paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, sugar, garlic, onion, salt, and pepper to create a nice balance of flavors for the rub. Allow the meat to marinate in the seasonings for at least 3 hours, up to 3 days for the flavors to penetrate the surface better.

Grilling Tri-Tip

For large roasts, I like to rest the meat at room temperature for about 1 hour before cooking. This technique allows the meat to sear nicely on the surface without taking too much time for the meat to cook on the inside. The high heat from the grill and sugars in the rub creates a beautiful crust when seared for 10 minutes on both sides.

This cut is pretty thick, so to nail the right doneness of the meat the heat is turned down, and the grill is covered to roast the beef. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature, 120-125°F (medium-rare) and 130-135°F (medium).

Resting

Carryover cooking occurs with meat, so that is why you stop cooking before you hit the desired internal doneness temperature to account for the off-heat cooking that continues to happen. For a 2 to 3-pound tri-tip roast, 15 minutes is a good resting time.

Santa Maria style tri tip with a carving fork placed in one of the slices

Cutting

When slicing tri-tip, it’s easy to see the direction that the grain runs along the muscle fibers. If you’re looking at the beef with the thinner end pointing towards you, the grain runs parallel from the short sides. Make sure to slice against the grain, with the knife at a slight angle, so you don’t end up with extremely chewy slices of beef.

If you haven’t had tri-tip before, this is a flavorful recipe that doesn’t require a long cooking time and can be prepared days ahead so that you can enjoy within an hour or less of grilling!

Tri-tip is a cut from the very bottom of the sirloin section of the cow, between the ribs and rump, shaped similarly to a long triangle. Due to this shape, you will get some thinner parts of the cut that will cook more quickly than the thicker sections. This is great if you have eaters who like more well-done pieces, or like me, who prefer medium-rare, you get the best of both worlds!

Slices of tri tip steak on a plate with lettuce and red onions

This Santa Maria style tri-tip is fantastic on its own or with a delicious homemade barbecue sauce. Once you give this steak a try, it will often be requested by friends and family at your summertime gatherings! Have you made tri-tip before? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments section.

More Steak recipes

Why is it important to “rest” meat before slicing?

Raw beef consists of mostly water (around 75%), protein and fat. Water is stored in multiple individual muscle myofibril structures, which make up each muscle fiber of the meat. As it cooks, the protein chemically bonds together, and some even dissolve, compressing and contracting during the exposure to heat. The contractions force the water out of the myofibrils into the adjacent spaces of the muscle fiber, and the meat visually shrinks. You can physically see the water quickly run out when you slice right away. When the meat is allowed to rest before cutting, the proteins can relax, allowing some of the expelled water to be reabsorbed by the myofibrils and fill in the spaces of the dissolved protein. The result is a less dry, juicer and more tender piece of meat! (Reference: The Science of Good Cooking)

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Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip

Santa Maria style tri-tip recipe perfect for grilling during barbecue season! A smoky, sweet and spicy rub adds instant flavor to this tender cut of beef.
Pin Print Review
4.3 from 113 votes
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time1 hr
Total Time1 hr 30 mins
Servings 6 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds tri tip

Dry Rub (1/2 cup)

  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper

Instructions 

  • Combine all dry rub ingredients in a small container and set aside.
  • Trim the silver skin and fat layer from the trip tip. Place on a sheet of plastic wrap.
  • Generously coat the tri-tip with about 4 tablespoons of dry rub, 2 tablespoons on each side. Store extra seasonings in an airtight container for later use.
  • Tightly wrap the tri-tip and refrigerate until ready to use. Allow the rub to settle into the meat for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
  • When ready to grill, remove the seasoned tri-tip from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature, about 1 hour.
  • Clean grill and lightly oil the grates using a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil.
  • Heat the grill to medium-high if using a gas grill. Once hot, place the meat on the grill and sear one side for 10 minutes with the lid open.
  • Turn tri-tip over and sear for another 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and close the lid.
  • Allow the meat to cook for about 15-25 minutes, checking the temperature until the thickest part reaches 120-125°F (medium-rare) or 130-135°F (medium).
  • The meat will continue to cook after being removed from the heat, so stop cooking a few degrees lower than the desired doneness.
  • Remove the tri-tip from the grill and allow it to rest wrapped loosely in foil for at least 15 minutes before slicing. The foil will catch any juices from the meat, which can be added back to the meat after slicing for more flavor.
  • Thinly slice against the grain and serve.

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Nutrition Facts
Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip
Amount Per Serving
Calories 458 Calories from Fat 261
% Daily Value*
Fat 29g45%
Saturated Fat 10g50%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.1g
Monounsaturated Fat 0.03g
Cholesterol 142mg47%
Sodium 181mg8%
Potassium 43mg1%
Carbohydrates 3g1%
Fiber 1g4%
Sugar 2g2%
Protein 47g94%
Vitamin A 700IU14%
Vitamin C 1.7mg2%
Calcium 4mg0%
Iron 0.4mg2%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Reader Interactions

73 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Matty says

    The recipe sounds great and I agree about not finding tri tips as good as in the central coast. I was born and raised there and miss it so much. As a native to the central coast and Santa Maria Tri Tip, your recipe for the spice rub is way off. Original SM Tri Tip doesn’t have paprika, cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper or brown sugar. The SM seasoning is much simpler. Salt, Pepper (I use a mix or black and white), white sugar, Granulated garlic, and dried parsley, I’ve seen some use granulated onion before too. That my friend will recreate the perfect Santa Maria Tri tip and bring you back to the central coast as the flavor explodes in your mouth

    • Jessica Gavin says

      So nice to meet a central coast native! You recipe sounds delicious, I can’t wait to give it a try 🙂

  2. Anissa Rodriguez says

    As a Santa Maria native, true tri tip is served with fresh salsa, not bbq sauce. The flavor of bbq sauce just ruins the true flavor of the meat!

  3. Kennith says

    Thanks for the recipe it has actually become a common meal amongst bbq in my group of friends. And we use a little bit of ghost pepper salt and little extra brown sugar. Also we tend to use a Waygu tri tip for our selection

  4. Evan says

    Just made this: my wife and I are from Southern California and grew up with the locals selling tri tip at the local Ralph’s for fundraisers. This is as close to the California tri tip as you can get.

  5. Nicky says

    We had a dinner party last night and used this recipe for the dry rub. It was delicious and very balanced. I used smoked paprika and it gave it a nice smokey taste. Very balanced recipe with not too much salt which I really liked. Thank you for sharing this recipe!

  6. darl bundren says

    Not sure exactly why but I wish chili powder were not so dominant here. it overwhelmed the other flavors for me. The rest seemed like it would have been a great rub.

  7. Janet McHenry says

    Both my sons went to Cal Poly SLO but they learned to fix tri-tip through FFA barbecues in high school. We create a dry mix of half lemon pepper and half garlic salt. Easy and yummy.

  8. Joyce Robalino says

    Jessica,
    Love your rub! I like a bit more than the usual salt pepper garlic powder.
    I was born in Carmel, grew up in Monterey CA and was quite familiar with tritips and Santa Maria-style BBQ. I didn’t know until I moved away from California for a few years that you can rarely find them.
    My dad was from North Carolina and really know how to BBQ. We used to do huge BBQ’s for his club and where he worked. He was actually a pitmaster.
    He learned the SM style too.
    What I really like too is the Pinquitos. They are really easy to find in stores on the central coast by the pound from Hispanic grocery stores. Buy them when I pass through the area.
    Recently my neighbors went down there for a family trip and I asked them to get some. They kept going to the tourist type places and all they kept finding were the about 1lb bags with seasoning for around $7-9 a package.
    A little sleuthing on the internet and I found L.A. Hearne Co in King City who is a major grower of them. I just ordered a 10lb bag that was $16 plus ship of about $13! (You can buy a container of them about 6lbs on Amazon for $49.95! Yikes!)
    So if you want to make the whole SM BBQ experience at home you can get the beans.

  9. Eloise says

    Jessica, Well I’m not from SLObut from central Cali. Here we use a rub called Pappy’s. And usually our tri tip is served with green salad, beans and pilaf and bbq sauce on the side. I’ve been grilling tri tip for at least 40 years. Please quit alerting the rest of the world about our best kept west coast secret, lol 😝

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