When most people put beef and BBQ together it usually means brisket. Those who BBQ frequently understand brisket requires nearly the most cooking time of entire BBQ family, short of a whole pork shoulder or a whole hog. 14+ hours is not unusual at all to take an extremely difficult cut of beef from shoe leather to succulence. What if I told you that there is a readily available cut of beef that will give you more flavor and more texture than brisket with a fraction of the time investment? Sounds good?
The first major challenge you face in creating good tri-tip is locating the actual cut of meat. Tri-tip is most commonly found on the West coast. While it has become increasingly easy to locate on the East coast, you may have to do a little leg work. Start by calling your local butcher. I'm a resident of Atlanta. I can usually easily locate a tri-tip by visiting Costco or placing a call to my Publix butcher to let him know what I am looking for. Understand, you will most likely not find a tri-tip while browsing the beef case at your supermarket. However, if your local butcher is worth his salt, you'll gain a few brownie points when you ask for a tri-tip. This is a meat lover's cut. You'll be signaling that you are in the know - in the club, as it were. Tri-tip is a cut that offers a high degree of flavor with a minimal investment. This is not your pedestrian, low flavor-high investment beef tenderloin.
Here is a tri-tip in all of its natural glory. Most tri-tip roasts will run from two and a half to four pounds. This particular roast was very close to the four pound mark. Notice the marbling. Not bad, right? On the heifer, the tri-tip lives very close to the sirloin and carries a good bit of that sirloin flavor with it. All that is required to cook it properly is a well constructed rub and a mixture of direct and indirect grilling with some judicious use of smoke.
What you see here is a properly rubbed tri-tip ready for the grill. The rub couldn't be simpler. I's a 1-1 ratio across the board. Equal parts kosher salt, garlic powder, fresh ground black pepper, oregano, and dried rosemary. Just to keep this article honest and on the level, I jacked this particular roast up with an additional dose of Rod's Rub Steak Out! Since I was introduced to Steak Out!, nary a single piece of beef has hit my grill without it. And for the record, I feel Steak Out! enhanced the end product. But you needn't worry about it if Steak Out! isn't readily available to you. Your tri-tip will still taste fantastic without it.
Your next step is to set up your grill for indirect smoking. If you divide your available grilling space in half, one half needs to have a nice pile of charcoal underneath it and the other needs to be charcoal free. Have a small container of wet wood chips/chunks (preferably hickory) ready to added to the fire when the time is appropriate. Your first step will be to sear the tri-tip directly over the coals. I usually need 3 to 5 minutes a side for the tri-tip roast to develop a nice Malliard crust. Once crusted on both sides, I move the tri-tip to the indirect heat side of the grill and add my soaked wood chips/chunks to the charcoal. At this point, you are effectively grill-roasting-smoking your tri-tip until it is done. You have a nice crust and the goal is to add flavor via the smoke while bringing the roast to a medium rare temperature of 125 degrees. Depending on the size of your tri-tip, this can take from 25 to 45 minutes total. When you have reached the desired temperature of 125 degrees, pull your tri-tip and bring it in to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
When serving tri-tip, it is crucial to understand that the roast needs to be cut against the grain to achieve maximum tenderness. Pay attention to the grain and cut directly against it. Slice thinly. My preferred presentation is to serve the tri-tip with some grilled garlic bread so that your guests can assemble some delicious roast beef sandwiches. You can augment this with a nice au jus or a jacked-up parsley mayonnaise. The traditional Santa Maria California presentation would include some BBQ beans, which are easy enough to pull off. I'm sure Google can help you there.
So...lessons to be learned. While brisket is certainly an important BBQ mountain to climb, tri-tip offers great rewards in a much shorter time frame. Tri-tip is not low and slow cooking, but that's perfectly acceptable. All too frequently, a poorly cooked brisket turns out tasting like smoked pot roast. 14 hours is far too much time to spend for that kind of output. With just a properly executed dry rub and some careful grilling, a tri-tip will yield you a delicious smoked steak flavor with a fraction of the effort.
Bon Appetit, amigos.