Karl’s Santa Maria Barbecued Tri-tip

On the Fourth of July we went to a friend’s house for Santa Maria barbeque. Jan liked it so much that she asked me to make it this Sunday. A Santa Maria Barbecue is not complete without pinquito beans and Santa Maria style salsa.

Karl’s Santa Maria Barbecued Tri-tip

Karl’s Santa Maria Barbecued Tri-tip

The traditional seasonings for Santa Maria tri-tip is simply salt, pepper and garlic powder. The last time I made this dish I chose to use a wet marinade. This time I am trying a more authentic dry rub. I looked a lot of seasoning suggestions and they were either too sparse or way too complex. As I looked through the options from other peoples’ recipes, I made my selections.

Last time I used very little salt because I was using salty soy sauce as the base of my marinade. Today, I am going with the traditional dry rub ingredients with only a few additions, paprika and onion power. Sugar may help the meat form a dark crust, but it is never used in a real Santa Maria barbecue.

There are a couple of problems with cooking tri-tips. If you cook it directly over the coals, the fat cap renders and drips down creating flare-ups the scorch the meat. Many of the recipes claimed that this is how it is supposed to be—burnt on the outside, tender on the inside. I cannot agree.

If you remove the fat cap, the meat is too exposed to the heat and the meat will come out dry and over done. There is also the problem of the shape. The tri-tip’s triangular shape is so uneven that the ends are overdone before the thick middle is even close to being done.

Cook’s Illustrated had article about barbequed chicken. They were dealing with very similar problems in barbequing chicken. They had several suggestions on how to prevent just these sorts of problems.

Their solution was to place an aluminum tray on the coal free side of the grill. Their usual solution of a bi-level fire, pushing all of the coals to one side of the grill and doing most of the cooking away from the coals, was not helping with the disparate meats of a chicken. The thick parts were coming out under done and the thinner parts were coming out dry. The aluminum tray acts as a heat sink. It lowers and evens out the temperature of grill by as much as 30º F. Besides reducing the heat, the aluminum tray also catches the rendered fat and prevents scorching flare-ups.

Note: You can lower the temperature by an additional 10º F by putting an inch of water into the tray.

Santa Maria barbecued tri-tip is always smoked, with the preferred wood being red oak. I decided that a bit of wood smoke would be a good addition, but I had to settle on some apple wood chips.

We have just shipped Eilene off to the South of France where she will be staying for 21 days. After I had bought the ingredients for dinner, Miriam and Chris let us know that they would not be joining us. Oh well, more for us—they did ask for leftovers to be delivered Monday.

Karl’s Santa Maria Barbecued Tri-tip


1 Tbs. Kosher salt
½ Tbs. black pepper, ground
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. onion power
1 tsp. garlic powder

3 lb. tri-tip


1. Put the dry ingredients into a small bowl and mix thoroughly.

2. If the tri-tip has a thick fat cap trim much of it off. Leave about a ¼ inch over the side and score cross hatches through the remaining fat cap about an inch apart.

3. Spread the dry rub all over the meat and let it marinate in a gallon plastic bag for at least 4 hours.

Tip: This should be done the night before and the meat should marinate for 18 hours.

Note: Do not poke holes in the meat with a fork to speed up the marinating process! Holes only give the meat juices avenues to escape.

4. Start the coals at least an hour before dinner.

5. When you start the grill pour the wood chips into water to soak for 20 minutes.

6. Spread the coals against the back of the barbecue and place an aluminum pan on the front side. Replace the grill and heat it for 5 minutes.

7. Drain the wood chips well and fold the into a tin foil envelope. Poke several holes in the top of the foil packet and place them on the coals.

Note: Take a sheet of tin foil and put the wood chips in the center. Fold the top and bottom edges to the center and roll them together length wise. Press the packet flat and roll up the open ends to make a sealed packet. Poke holes in the folded top and lay it on the coals.

Tip: When the packet starts to smoke it is time to put the meat on and close the grill.

8.  Place the meat on the cool side of the grill fat cap down (over the aluminum tray) and close the grill for 20 minutes.

9.  Turn the meat over and place the thickest part of the roast at the edge of the coals with the thinner end slanted toward the front of the grill. Insert a constant-read meat thermometer and close the grill again.

Tip: If you have a tri-tip that is thick on one end and thin at the other use this technique. If you have a tri-tip that is thick in the middle and thin at both ends lay it just off the edge of the coals toward the front of the grill.

10. Then the meat reaches 135º F, about another 20-30 minutes, remove it from the grill and wrap it in tin foil to rest for 10 minutes.

Tip: How long your meat will take to reach this temperature depends on whether you put the meat directly over the coals or, in my case with a foil pan and indirect heat

Note: Grilled beef cooked to 135º F and then wrapped in foil to rest continues to cook to 140 º F, which is medium rare.

12. Slice thickly across the grain and serve.


Filed under Barbeque, Beef, Main Dishes, Sauces and Spices

8 responses to “Karl’s Santa Maria Barbecued Tri-tip

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