Meat Cuts 101: Tri-tip


Tri-tip tray ready for the case. The big guy was removed prior to separating the round and the loin, which kept it whole.


When you receive a beef hindquarter whole, the tri-tip can be removed whole prior to separating the loin and round. Otherwise it would be cut in half.

Cut Name: Tri-tip
NAMP Guide Number: 185C (with fat cap) 185D (with fat cap removed)
Bone in/Boneless:  Boneless
Other Names: Newport steak, Triangle steak, Triangle roast, Corner cut, Knuckle cap, Sirloin butt Aiguillette baronne (france), Pastorenstuck (Germany), Rabillo de cadera (Spain)
Best Cooking Method: Hot and fast, loves a dry rub.

Tensor Fasciae Latae. This small muscle, which plays a supporting role in walking and running is perhaps the most enigmatic of all beef cuts. Almost perfectly triangular and shot through with fat, it’s one of the more distinctive looking cuts, yet no one seems to be able to agree on one specific name. Depending on who you ask it could be known as a Newport steak, triangle steak, corner cut, knuckle cap, sirloin butt or Santa Maria steak.  Infuriatingly it’s occasionally known by both sirloin bottom and sirloin top. But it might be most well-known as tri-tip  

The muscle itself is located on the sirloin, on the inside of the hip. Consisting of a coarse, open grain structure similar to eye round, tri-tip can be almost shockingly well-marbled.  It’s not particularly tender but has a ton of a great flavor and takes to a marinade very well. Tri-tip usually weighs in around 1.5-2 pounds. Normally cut in half when the loin and round primal are separated, a butcher who wants to take the time to remove the tri-tip whole can yield a whole muscle twice as big, and perfect for roasting.

 In what I personally consider a wholesale tragedy, tri-tip was almost (and this “almost” is important – we’ll get to that later) never eaten in America until after World War II.  For years butchers would cube it up into stew, or grind it for ground beef.  But all of this changed in the 1950’s when a man named Otto Schaefer Sr. rediscovered the tri-tip, and began to show it some much deserved attention.  Schaefer, a German immigrant, owned a Butcher shop in Santa Maria California from which he championed the almost unheard of cut.  He perfected what has now become known as Santa Maria style barbecue – tri-tip grilled quickly over high heat generated from the coals of live red oak wood.

Like so many cuts of meat that find themselves in vogue today, the “discovery” of tri-tip by Otto Schaefer was actually more of a rediscovery.  There is a long history of tri-tip being employed as a pot roast in Europe, especially in Germany.  When Pennsylvania was originally settled by Dutch and German immigrants in the late 17th century they brought this tradition with them.  Known as Dreieckichbrode, or “three cornered roast” the Pennsylvania Dutch would marinate and then steam or roast the whole tri-tip.  Today, customers coming into the shop recognize Tri-Tip instinctively as something their mother or grandmother would roast and serve at family meals.  It may have taken some 300 years, but the tri-tip is finally back in style.

You don’t need to fly in some West-coast logs to make a delicious Santa Maria tri-tip though, it will preform just as well over charcoal or even on a stove top.  Just season liberally with a California beef rub, sear for 4-5 minutes each side, and then finish in a 350 degree oven until it’s your desired temp (you do have a thermometer, right?)

California Beef Rub
(Adapted from the recipe by Kim Severson)

2 tbl fine ground coffee
1.5 tbl kosher salt
1.5 tbl granulated garlic
1 tbl coarse ground black pepper
1 tbl brown sugar
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp sumac
1/4 tsp cinnamon


The tri-tip left whole and still attached to the loin. It needs to be cleaned up before it’s ready for the grill.

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