Those of us who’ve sampled grilled tri tip steak are understandably anxious to repeat the experience. The trouble is, this cut isn’t always easy to find. Fortunately, all is not lost—there are a number of alternatives that should serve your purposes nicely.
Tri Tip Alternative
The tri tip comes from the bottom sirloin, so other cuts from the sirloin make decent replacements in a pinch. Picanha and flank steak work well when you want to fire up the grill. For the smoker, try substituting a chuck roast or bottom round roast instead.
All About the Tri Tip
Cut from the bottom sirloin, the tri tip takes its name from its boomerang-shaped appearance. Though it’s sometimes confused with the picanha (more on that below), tri tip is a separate cut that goes by several different monikers (see below).
If you’ve never heard of tri tip, geography may be to blame. This cut is more popular on the West Coast of the United States than anywhere else. Many butchers on the eastern seaboard don’t even bother to stock tri tip, as so few people ask for it.
Tri tip has a splendid amount of marbling, and the meat is reasonably tender as long as you avoid overcooking it. The marbling gives it bold, beefy flavor, which contributes to its popularity. We think it’s ideal when grilled, but it can be nice on the smoker, too.
Other Names for Tri Tip
Due to its appearance, tri tip might also be called “triangle steak.” As we mentioned, it’s cut from the bottom sirloin, so those words might turn up on the label as well. But these alternate names are just the tip of the iceberg—or steak, if you will.
The cut was popularized in southern California by a man named Bob Schutz. In the 1950s, the meat was typically ground to make hamburger. However, Schutz, then owner of the Santa Maria Market, decided to prepare it like a steak instead.
This origin story contributed to two of tri tip’s other aliases, the “Santa Maria steak” and the “California cut.” Other alternate names include “Newport steak” or “poor man’s brisket.” The latter term stems from the fact that tri tip is an excellent alternative to brisket when you don’t have time to smoke a larger cut.
Tri Tip Alternative
Since tri tip is hard to find outside of California, you might be out of luck if you want to try it at your next barbecue. You can always ask your butcher if they can find it, but that won’t always work, especially if you’re pressed for time.
Instead, consider one of these alternatives. They’re by no means identical to the tri tip, as each cut is unique. But if you prepare them correctly, you should be well pleased with the outcome.
Since the tri tip is taken from the bottom sirloin, it stands to reason that a good sirloin tip steak would be a decent substitute. True, the meat doesn’t contain as much marbling, but it’s a flavorful cut that grills up nicely.
When using sirloin as a replacement for tri tip, look for a fattier cut. Also, pay close attention to avoid overcooking the meat. It should be served medium-rare, with an internal temperature no higher than 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sourced from the top sirloin rather than the bottom, the picanha is distinguished by its generous fat cap. It might also be called a “coulotte” or “top sirloin cap.”
Picanha is a Brazilian term, referring to a tool that’s used for moving cattle. It’s more likely to be packaged under one of its other names when sold in the United States.
As we pointed out, the picanha is often confused with the tri tip due to its triangular shape. However, while the tri tip is well marbled, most of the fat on the picanha is located on the cap.
If you’d like to use picanha as a stand-in for tri tip, don’t trim away too much of the fat. It will contribute moisture to the meat. This cut is superb on the grill, but it also takes well to the smoker if that’s what you have in mind.
Bottom Round Roast
This is a well-used muscle taken from the rear leg of the animal. The high level of exercise contributes to a less tender texture than the tri tip, so it’s best to use this as a substitute when you have your heart set on smoking as a cooking method.
To help the meat remain tender and moist during cooking, use a brine or a marinade beforehand. If you can’t find a bottom round roast, rump roasts benefit from this treatment as well.
As a bonus, both bottom round and rump roast are wallet-friendly choices. That’s good news if you’re planning on serving a large crowd.
The chuck is located between the neck and shoulder of the animal. Cuts taken from the chuck are quite fatty—even more so than the tri tip, making this another good option for the smoker. Like the bottom round, it’s also very affordable.
You’ll need to smoke the chuck roast at a low temperature to allow the connective tissue and fat to break down. When you do the job right, though, the meat should be tender enough to melt in your mouth.
On the opposite end of the leanness spectrum, you have the flank steak. This is a flavorful and chewy steak with a broad grain. It lacks the fat content of tri tip, but it’s excellent when grilled hot and fast.
Try using flank steak as a replacement for tri tip when you’re in the mood for a delicious grilled steak that can be on the table in a hurry. It’s not a good option for smoking, as the cut is too small and lean.
Be sure to slice flank steak across the grain. If you cut it wrong, the texture will be tough rather than pleasantly chewy. Any leftovers can be used to fill tacos and sandwiches, or to add a protein boost to green salads.
Best Way to Prepare Tri Tip
Grilling brings out the intense beef taste and unique texture of the tri tip. The marbling contributes just enough fat to provide flavor, but not so much that the steak benefits from lower cooking temperatures.
However, there is something to be said for the robust flavor of smoked tri tip. If you’d like to experiment with the smoker for this cut, by all means do so. Just remember that the meat should still be cooked to medium-rare for optimal results.
Set the grill to medium-high. A charcoal fire works best, but it’s fine to use a gas grill if you don’t have time to wait for the coals to heat up.
Pat the tri tip dry and season as desired. The meat takes well to both wet and dry rubs. Since it tastes so good on its own, though, you can keep it simple with a blend of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Grill the steaks for 6 to 7 minutes on the first side, then another 5 to 6 minutes once they’re flipped. If the steaks are very thin, you might have to reduce this cooking time by a minute or two.
Remove the tri tip from the heat when the internal temperature reads 130 degrees. Let the steaks rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve.
Although tri tip is delicious, its popularity hasn’t extended far beyond the West Coast. If your butcher can’t make a special order for you in time, try one of our suggested tri tip alternative cuts instead.