Tri-tip is a quality cut of meat with the big, bold, juicy flavor of grilled steaks–what better way to enjoy it this summer than making a Smoked Tri-Tip in the backyard? Fire up that smoker–you know you want to.
Maybe you’ve had grilled tri-tip before, served with all the fixings: pinquitos beans, mac and cheese, a big green salad, and garlic bread. And maybe you have a smoker that’s begging to be dusted off and put to work. If so, this recipe for Smoked Tri-Tip is the perfect summer kickoff recipe.
And good news: smoking a tri tip doesn’t require 12 hours and constant monitoring. Nope. It’s easy to cook and usually is ready in a couple hours, much faster than the beans!
If you’ve ever wondered whether to smoke or grill a tri tip, hopefully this recipe will point you in a juicy new direction. Let’s smoke some meat!
What is a Tri Tip?
The up and coming tri-tip has many nicknames: triangle tip, triangle steak, triangle roast, bottom sirloin steak, just to name a few. It’s the main star at barbecues across California, but word has gotten out, and its fame is spreading.
Out on the West coast, it’s often called Santa Maria steak, because this meaty, delicious roast plays a starring role in California regional food, especially Santa Maria barbecue. Out East, however, it’s known as a Newport steak. No matter what you call it, it’s a fabulous, economical cut that’s worth searching out.
What cut of beef is a Tri-Tip?
If you’re not familiar with it, the tri-tip is a small, boneless, triangular cut from the sirloin. It usually weighs about 1 1/2-2 pounds. It resembles a thick, slightly lopsided boomerang that is laced throughout with just the right amount of marbled fat. Even though lean, the marbling contributes to its flavor and tenderness.
What’s the difference between a Tri-Tip, flank steak, and a brisket?
While all of these cuts are delicious, they have their differences. A tri-tip is part of the sirloin, near the bottom by the hip.
However, a brisket is a giant cut, ranging in size from 12-20 pounds, from the breast area. Most people know it and love it, but it’s an enormous cut with a looser grain and much more marbling.
In contrast, flank steak comes from the lower abdomen. Although it’s very lean it isn’t as tender as tri-tip, so it benefits from marinating and shouldn’t be overcooked.
What you need to make Smoked Tri Tip:
Everything, well, maybe not everything, you need to become a BBQ pro right here. (BTW, if you feel like you can’t live without anything here, buying through the links helps run this site, so thank you kindly!)
- A smoker. This recipe for Smoked Tri Tip is made on one of the undisputed champions, the good old WSM, or Weber Smokey Mountain. It uses charcoal and wood chips. You can use whatever smoker you’re comfortable with, though.
- An instant read probe thermometer. Make sure it’s of good quality, like this one. Or get a fancy set up with multiple probes that get left in the meat, so you don’t have to open the lid.
- A coal chimney. Like this one. Indispensable for grilling, smoking everything. Lights coals perfectly, every time, without starter. All you need is a match and a couple sheets of newspaper.
- A cooling rack. This helps with moving what you’re smoking on and off the grates.
- 12″ tongs. You probably already have them. Always a good idea, no matter what you’re cooking.
- Wood chips. Adding hardwood chips boosts the flavor of smoked meat. Hickory wood chips work great for this recipe, but so does a bag of oak chips.
- Aluminum foil. Foil works for tenting over the meat while it rests.
- BBQ rub. You favorite dry rub, or make a smoked tri-tip rub right here.
- Yellow mustard. Good, old fashioned yellow mustard. Use Dijon mustard if you’d rather.
How to light a smoker:
It’s time to demystify the smoker. You don’t have to be a pit master to smoke meat at home. You can do it!
The secret to consistent smoker temperature is a foolproof setup from the getgo. Here’s a surefire way to light a charcoal smoker like the WSM. It’s called the Minion method, named after BBQ master Jim Minion.
Want to know even more about How to Use a Charcoal Smoker? Head on over to read even more about smoking with hardwood, smoked chicken, and how to clean a smoker.
Expose the charcoal grate. Remove the cylindrical part (center section) of the smoker, exposing the rounded bottom of the smoker, the lower charcoal grate, and the fire ring, also known as the coal chamber. Make sure these areas are relatively clean and free of ashes.
Dump the briquettes. Generously pour the unlit charcoal briquettes into the fire ring. Make a deep hole in the center of the briquettes with your hands. Distribute a couple paraffin cubes inside the coals.
Get the hardwood. If you decide on hardwood chunks for extra flavor, throw a few medium to large dry chunks into the top of the coals in the lower grate, preferably near the vents, to create a bit more smoke. (Only use three or four chunks, and don’t bury them deep into the coals—meat accepts the smoke flavor better when it’s raw and cool; once it starts cooking, the smoke can turn the meat bitter.)
Open the vents. For maximum air circulation, make sure the bottom vents are fully open, at least until the smoker reaches the desired temperature.
Use a chimney starter. Fill the starter chamber of a chimney starter about halfway full with more briquettes. Stuff the bottom with paper according to the starter’s instructions and light.
Orange coals is go time. Once the briquettes in the starter are white in color and glowing orange inside, they’re ready. Pour them into the well you made in the center of the coal ring. These glowing coals will gradually light the surrounding coals; that’s what will sustain the long, slow cooking you need.
Reassemble smoker. Put everything back together. Return the cylinder part of the smoker to the bottom of the smoker.
Fill the water pan. Now it’s time to fill the water pan.Open the smoker door and fill the pan about ¾ of the way up with water. Throughout smoking, especially for longer smokes, it’s important to check the water levels in the water pan occasionally.
Close it up. Close the door; double check and make sure the vents are open. Place the lid on the smoker and keep the lid vent fully open. Chances are you’ll leave the lid vent open during the entire smoke.
Sit back and wait. Wait until the smoker comes up to temperature—about 200-225 degrees—which usually takes 30-45 minutes.
How to make Smoked Tri Tip:
Now that you’ve lit the smoker, you’re ready to rumble with the tri-tip. By the way, the smoker can cook other things, too! Don’t waste good coal–the beauty of the WSM is that it can cook for 8-12 hours. While you have the heat, smoke some chicken wings, a whole chicken, or a pork loin.
Psst! If you’re a visual learner, these pictures show you what’s up–but for the actual recipe with specific amounts, look towards the bottom of the page!
- Slather on the mustard, then generously sprinkle on the dry rub. Pat everything down onto the meat.
- Place the meat on the cooling rack and move to the smoker once you’ve reached the proper temperature, about 225 degrees. Hurry up and close the lid–don’t let the heat escape.
- Set a timer. After about an hour, check the internal temperature of the meat and make a mental note of it.
- After about another 20 minutes, take the temperature again. When the meat reaches 130-135 degrees, remove it from the smoker, tent with foil, and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving. Resting the neat helps keep the juices inside during slicing.
How long will it take to smoke a tri tip?
Smoke tri tips at 225-250 degrees until they hit an internal temperature of 135 degrees for medium rare. In general it takes about 30 minutes per pound.
A 2-pound tri tip would need to smoke for an hour while a 3 ½ pounder will need about an hour and 45 minutes.
Tri-Tip temperature chart:
Since tri-tip doesn’t have a lot of connective tissue that has to break down (unlike a pot roast, for example), you can cook it the same way you cook a steak. It all depends on you. Here’s how to decode those temperatures into real world steak doneness.
130-135 degrees for medium-rare
135-145 degrees for medium
145-150 degrees for medium-well
150+ for well done
What wood works best with Smoked Tri-Tip?
I used hickory with this tri-tip but the traditional wood to use is red oak if you have it available.
Low and Slow BBQ Dry Rub:
- 8 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon thyme (crushed)
- ½ teaspoon coriander
- 1 tablespoon ground New Mexico chilies (or ancho)
- 1 teaspoon ground chipotle chilies (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard powder
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Combine everything in a glass jar with a lid and shake it up. Keep in the pantry until you need it.
How to slice Smoked Tri-Tip:
Even though tri tip tends to be treated like a steak, it is a cut of meat with very long muscle fibers. If you don’t cut it correctly, against the grain of the meat fibers, you’ll wind up with fibrous, chewy meat.
The first cut to make is where the boomerang shape of the cut meets in the middle. The grain changes direction there, fanning out from the middle, so it’s helpful to cut the tri-tip into two pieces first.
Then, you can eyeball the grain of each piece and make slices into each cut—much like a beef tenderloin.
- 2.5-3 pounds tri tip one tri-tip roast
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
- 2 tablespoons bbq dry rub
- Brush the tri tip with mustard, coating all sides.
- Shake the rub all over the tri tip and rub it in, covering every part of the meat.
- Let the meat rest at room temperature as the smoker heats up.
- Once the smoker has reached temp, 200-225 degrees, add the tri tip, directly on the grate, or using another cooling rack for easy transfers, and place the lid on the smoker.
- Check the tri tip after 1 hour and take the temperature.
- Once the tri tip reaches between 130 and 135 degrees, transfer the meat to a dish and cover loosely with foil.
- Let the meat rest for 15 minutes before slicing thinly across the grain.