Most pitmasters agree that tri tip is a superb cut of meat. What they can’t always agree on is whether the meat should be smoked or roasted for optimum results. Our guide will take an in-depth look at smoked vs grilled tri tip to weigh the benefits of each.
Smoked vs Grilled Tri Tip
Tri tip is a lean yet boldly flavored steak that tastes excellent whether it’s grilled or smoked. Since it has very little connective tissue, an extended stint in the smoker isn’t recommended, but the lower cooking temperature will yield tender and tasty meat. For an even faster cooking process, opt for the grill instead.
What is Tri Tip?
Tri tip is a large cut taken from the bottom sirloin. It’s sometimes called a roast, but most butchers classify it as a steak. The name “tri tip” comes from the fact that the roast has a triangular appearance.
Other names for tri tip include “triangle steak,” “Santa Maria steak,” and “California cut.” Those last two monikers came about because the steak was popularized in California, and in fact is difficult to find once you venture away from the West Coast.
Tri tip is a tender and fairly lean cut, though it contains enough marbling to give it a lovely beef flavor. It’s best cooked to medium-rare, when the fat on the meat has rendered just enough to give it a juicy texture.
Smoking vs Grilling: Understanding the Difference
You probably already know the difference between these two terms, but we should clarify just in case there’s any confusion.
Smoked meat is cooked over a low fire—usually indirect heat. To imbue the meat with flavor, the pitmaster will use wood chips or pellets, depending on the type of smoker they’re using.
Because smoked meat cooks slowly, it should be exceptionally tender as well as flavorful. In some cases, as with pulled pork and beef brisket, the meat is so tender that it shreds under gentle pressure.
By contrast, grilling is typically done over high heat. The meat is seared on either side to give it a nice crisp exterior, bringing out the natural juices.
Steak can be grilled to your liking, whether you prefer it rare or well-done. The longer it stays on the grill, the higher the internal temperature will rise. Rare steaks are typically served at 120-130 degrees, while meat is considered well-done at 170.
Smoked vs Grilled Tri Tip: Which is Better?
This is one of those questions that has no easy answer. We can’t argue against grilled tri tip, with its charred exterior giving way to a juicy center. But there’s always an argument to be made for the unmistakable flavor and texture of smoked meat as well.
Since you can’t really go wrong either way, we’ve decided to break down the benefits and drawbacks of each method. That way, you’ll be able to determine which one will work best for what you have in mind.
Smoked Tri Tip
First, let’s talk about the benefits of smoked tri tip. The robust woodsy flavor is the best reason to use this method. That’s true of every type of smoked meat, from bold beef cuts to delicate fish fillets.
Also, the low-and-slow cooking process allows the meat’s fibers to break down, giving it a melt-in-your-mouth texture. When you’re starting with an already lean cut like tri tip, this can be an enticing prospect.
One caveat: While large, tough cuts should cook to around 200 degrees to give them the proper texture, you should pull smoked tri tip from the heat when it’s cooked to medium-rare. That way, it will still have plenty of moisture left, in addition to flavor.
When you smoke a cut of meat, the process is relatively hands-off. That gives you plenty of time to prepare your sides, watch the ball game, or socialize.
There are two sides to every story, however. The smoking process might not require a lot of action, but it also takes a long time. If you’re hoping to get a meal on the table in a hurry, smoking isn’t the best choice.
Smoking meat requires knowledge and finesse as well. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a smaller and leaner cut, as the meat will be in danger of overcooking if you’re not careful.
We should also mention that one of the key features of smoked meat is the bark, or flavorful crust, that forms on the exterior. While tri tip is a large steak, it’s not that big. It won’t be on the smoker long enough to form a thick, tasty bark.
Finally, proponents of grilling over smoking would argue that the tri tip has excellent beef flavor on its own. Why would you want to mask that with a bunch of smoke and seasonings?
Grilled Tri Tip
If you’ve ever sampled tri tip that’s been grilled over a charcoal fire, you might not need much convincing. With its buttery taste and slightly toothsome texture, this is a cut that was made for the grill.
In fact, the steak is so flavorful that you don’t really need a charcoal fire. A gas grill will work nearly as well, and it will require even less prep time. You can have your steak dinner on the table within the hour when you grill using a gas-fired unit.
Although it takes a bit of skill to grill a cut of meat to perfection, it doesn’t require the same level of care and attention as smoking does. Anyone who’s grilled a steak before should be able to put a decent flame-broiled tri tip on the table.
So, are there any reasons not to grill your tri tip? Honestly, no. Feel free to try smoked tri tip if you’re curious, but otherwise, we don’t have a solid argument against grilling the meat instead.
Tips and Techniques
Whether you’re planning on smoking or grilling, keep the following pointers in mind.
—Let the tri tip come to room temperature for about an hour before you start to cook.
—Don’t go overboard with the seasoning. A simple seasoning blend of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder should work perfectly.
—For smoking, use a temperature of 250 to 275 degrees. Grilling should take place over medium-high heat (about 400 degrees).
—Since tri tip is a cut of beef, it can hold up to strong wood flavors. Try pecan, oak, or hickory, or use a blend to add complexity.
—Remove the tri tip from the heat when it’s within 5 degrees of your target temperature. The steak will continue to cook during the resting period.
—Rest the steak for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing it across the grain and serving.
A cut of perfectly smoked beef is always an enticing prospect. That said, grilled tri tip can be just as tasty in its own way. Which one you choose should depend on how much time you have—and, of course, the flavor profile and texture that you’re craving.