La Cucina Povera—Santa Maria Tri-Tip of Beef

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Beef is not often a go-to source of protein in my cooking or our diet. Although every once in a great while it is satisfying to indulge our appetites with a nicely seasoned and grilled piece of beef sirloin known as a beef tri-tip roast.

The beef tri-tip cut has been around California’s Central Valley cattle ranches since the mid-1800s, becoming more mainstream in the late 1950s to 1960s. However, it was not a popular cut on the eastern side of the country where I grew up because that triangular shaped tip of the sirloin was generally set aside for stew meat or ground for use as hamburger meat. It was not until many years later, while visiting my brother-in-law in California where I sampled my first taste of grilled beef tri-tip, that I gained an appreciation for it’s rich texture and flavor.

As the story has been told, barbecue devotees recognize four major regional styles; the Carolinas, Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas. Well, there is actually a fifth style, somewhat of a well-kept secret in wood-fired grilling, Santa Maria barbecue.

The Santa Maria style traces its roots to beef cooked on the trail by the Mexican and Spanish cowboys (vaqueros) hired to work the herds. The beef was slow cooked over California red oak fires, which are now synonymous with the Santa Maria style. The meat was usually seasoned with a dry spice rub and marinated with some combination of vinegar and oil. To round out the Santa Maria barbecue meal, the sliced beef was often accompanied by grilled bread, a salsa, a tossed green salad, and a pot of slow-cooked beans, not unlike a southern pork roast where, at a minimum, the pulled pork might be accompanied by coleslaw, corn bread, pickled vegetables, and slow cooked beans.

When prepared properly beef tri-tip is an ideal cut for barbecue. It is a triangular shaped piece cut from the bottom sirloin in front of the cows hip. It is generally cut to weigh 1½ to 2 lbs, about 8 inches long, 3 to 4 inches across and generally 3 inches thick at the center, enough to serve four.

Beef tri-tip roast

Although a well-marbled cut, the butcher should leave a thin fat cap on one side, so that when placed on the hot grill first helps moisture come up through the meat, before turning it over and searing the leaner side sealing in the juices. The fat can be removed when slicing, but why bother!

Exploring the use of both a gas-fired grill and a wood-fired grill (preferred method), and employing slow cooking over both direct and indirect heat, the total cooking time is between 25 to 35 minutes to yield a medium-rare piece of beef with a nicely charred crust. Also, basting and turning the piece over every 5 minutes after the initial searing allows for even cooking and great color.

Building the coal bed

With regard to basting and overall flavoring, here is the approach that I developed after reading as much as I could find about the cowboys and those grill masters who followed them on how to prepare a grilled beef tri-tip.

Realizing that there wasn’t much chance of getting California red oak here in the East, I used eastern oak and cherry for my grill fire.

For the seasoning, I first sliced thick rounds of red onion and charred those slices using a grill pan on the stovetop. Next I coated the tri-tip on both sides with a puree of roasted garlic (my garlic jam), then sprinkled it with a combination of rosemary-bay-fennel powder, smoked pimentón, Aleppo pepper flakes, and salt and pepper, pressing it down with my hands so that the meat was evenly covered. Finally, I broke up the charred onions into rings and placed them over the tri-tip on both sides, wrapped the whole thing in clear film and allowed it to macerate over night in the refrigerator.


The next day while the fire was burning down to a good hot bed of coals, I removed the onions from the beef, added them into the work bowl of a food processor along with a generous tablespoon of Dijon mustard, ½ cup of red wine vinegar, and with the processor running, drizzled enough olive oil down the feed tube until a nice emulsion was formed which became the basting liquid for the grilling.

Using a tablespoon, I spread the basting liquid over the beef during the grilling on both sides until it was done. I tented the beef on the cutting board for 15 minutes before slicing it and while I waited, the remainder of the basting liquid was added to a saucepan with ¼ cup of water and a generous tablespoon of butter, and gently cooked down to finally be used as a pan sauce atop the sliced tri-tip.


Santa Maria Tri-Tip

Ingredients (serves 4)

2 lb tri-tip beef roast

1 to 2 large red onions

Roasted garlic puree (garlic jam)

Rosemary-bay-fennel powder (use spice grinder)

Aleppo or other red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

Dijon mustard

Olive oil and red wine vinegar



  • Peel the onions, slice into thick rounds, char in hot grill pan on stovetop.
  • Season and distribute the onions over the tri-tip as described above and macerate in the refrigerator over night.
  • Prepare the basting liquid in the food processor as described above and let the tri-tip warm to room temperature for 30 minutes before placing on the grill.
  • First reposition the coal bed in the grill so that an area is created for direct heat and indirect heat. Grill the tri-tip and baste as described above, turning at 5-minute intervals, searing in the direct heat section and moving between the direct and indirect heat sections so that the charred crust is evenly formed and the cooking is slow and easy.
  • After 25 to 35 minutes, remove the tri-tip from the grill and tent for another 15 minutes before slicing.
  • Use the remaining basting liquid to prepare the pan sauce as described above, adding any juices that have accumulated on the board while the tri-tip is tented and resting.
  • Slice the roast across the grain into ¼-inch slices, plate with a drizzle of the pan sauce spooned over. Serve with your favorite accompaniments and a full-bodied red wine.

Grilled and sliced


I realize that some of you reading this post will never go down this path. However, those of you who enjoy a good piece of beef every now and then should give this recipe a try. As I pointed out in the opening of this post, I eat little to no beef throughout the year, but make an exception for this recipe because for no other reason than it is just simply delicious! Oh, don’t forget to ask me about Faux Joes. . . .

Be well. Eat well.


Great food done well is not overly complicated but instead prepared and presented in a straightforward way. To know how to eat is to know enough!











Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *