Want to smoke a brisket but don’t have the time? Tri tip might just be your new best friend.

Tri tip is a triangular cut of beef cut from the bottom of the sirloin. Named after its triangular shape with a tapered “tip”, tri tip might just be one of the most flavourful cuts of meat that you’ve never heard of.

Often confused with brisket or picanha, tri tip is most popular in southern California, so you can be forgiven if you’ve never come across it before. It is also called a California cut, a bottom sirloin butt, a Newport steak, a Santa Maria steak or even referred to as a “poor man’s brisket”. But unlike brisket – which comes from the front of the cow, below the chuck – tri tip is actually considered a steak.

Tri tip dates back to early 19th century America, where it was a write-off and ground up to be used in hamburger meat. It wasn’t until the 1950s when Bob Schutz, the then-owner of Santa Maria Market, upon receiving an excess of hamburger meat, decided to prepare and eat it like a steak. The result was well received and the rest, as they say, is history.

How to prepare tri tip

Tri tip can be bought from the butcher trimmed or untrimmed. While it’s generally cheaper to buy the latter, make sure you have a knife sharp enough at home to trim it yourself – otherwise it’s probably worthwhile spending a few extra dollars per pound/kilogram to have the butcher do it for you. You can also buy tri tip steaks individually, which are ideal for smaller households.

Just like a brisket, you want to cut off any ragged ends and silver skin, trimming down the fat as much as possible. It’s fine to leave a little fat on, but get rid of any thick chunks of fat so that you are left with a lean, boneless, boomerang-shaped piece of meat.

When it comes to seasoning, tri tip is incredibly versatile and takes well to both dry and wet rubs. As it’s a fairly thick cut, you want to season it aggressively with salt, pepper and your favourite spices. To help the seasoning stick, first rub it with a neutral oil and coat it in your preferred spice mix.

How to cook tri tip

Rich and meaty in flavour and low in fat, tri tip cooks like a tender steak but slices like a brisket – perfect for people who want to do a brisket-like cook up but dont have the time. It can be smoked, barbecued, grilled or roasted, but it’s always best when cooked to a nice medium rare, before letting it rest and slicing.

Cook the tri tip in a low oven at 275ºF / 135ºC or smoke it with indirect high heat for about 45 minutes, letting the meat cook evenly the whole way through. For best results when cooking, always use a meat thermometer. Insert the thermometer horizontally into the thickest part of the tri tip and aim for an internal temperature of 125ºF–130ºF/51ºC–54ºC. Remember that it’s triangular shape will mean that the tail or “tip” will be more done, while the centre will be slightly pinker.

Once you have achieved your desired doneness, transfer the tri tip directly onto charcoal or onto a hot pan to give it a final sear on the outside.

Allow the meat to rest for 5–10 minutes before slicing.

A final tip for your tri tip

Take care when slicing your tri tip – an incorrect cut can take the meat from tender and juicy to tough and chewy. Tri tip has two distinct grain patterns: one vertical and one horizontal. For best results, cut the steak in half where the two grains intersect. Then slice each piece against the grain, to ensure you get the most tender slices of meat.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of cooking tri tip is its simplicity. As David Somerville from BBQ Dry Rubs says, “It is much simpler to cook a tri tip than a brisket. As long as you have a digital thermometer and are remotely familiar with how to grill a steak then you will do great with a tri tip. Briskets, on the other hand, have been known to make grown men cry.”