Tri Tip vs Brisket: Which Is Better for the Smoker?

It’s a problem we’ve all faced at one time or another: what cut of meat should we smoke today?

All right, maybe it doesn’t qualify as a problem, exactly—personally, I love it when I find myself in this situation. If you truly love great barbecue, then you probably do, too.

But let’s say you’ve decided on red meat, and you’re not sure if you should go for the brisket or the tri tip. While the two have definite similarities—for example, they’re both delicious—there are marked differences as well. Every outdoor chef who’s considered making tri tip vs brisket should be aware of these differences, so they can make an informed decision about what’s for dinner.

Let’s take a closer look at the things tri tip and brisket don’t have in common.

Tri Tip vs Brisket: The Basics

As we’ve mentioned, both tri tip and brisket are hearty cuts of red meat. However, they’re cut from completely different portions of the cow.

About Brisket

The brisket is located toward the front of the animal, around the breast area below the chuck portion. When it’s cut properly, the meat includes the pectoral and superficial muscles. This makes it one of the least tender cuts on the market. However, when it’s slow-roasted or smoked, the connective tissues have time to break down, resulting in juicy, flavorful meat that melts in your mouth.

About Tri Tip

Tri tip, on the other hand, is cut from the bottom sirloin. Butchers typically refer to it as a steak, rather than a roast. The scientific name for the cut is the tensor fasciae latae muscle—a mouthful that encourages a handy nickname. Because the cut is triangular, it gets shortened to “tri tip.”

The meat of the tri tip has a chewy mouthfeel similar to that of flank steak, but it’s actually a very lean cut. As a result, it’s more toothsome than the T-bone, but the two are similar in flavor.

Tri Tip vs Brisket: How They Differ

Now that we’ve covered the basic points of tri tip vs brisket, let’s take a look at the particulars. These are the categories in which the two cuts have the least in common.

Cost

If you’re looking for a budget cut, brisket is the unequivocal winner. The per-pound market price for brisket hovers around the $3-4 range, while tri tip can easily cost twice that. On a pound-for-pound basis, you’ll spend far less on brisket than you would on tri tip.

However, the blanket cost isn’t the only factor to consider. First of all, tri tip cuts tend to be far smaller than whole briskets (see Size, below). As a result, your grocery bill will be correspondingly higher when you choose brisket over tri tip. This may not be an issue if you’re intending to feed a large group in the first place, or if you’re planning on using plenty of leftovers in recipes later on. Still, it’s something to be aware of when you’re making your decision.

Also, bear in mind that brisket is fattier than tri tip, resulting in less usable product. You can expect to trim off and discard roughly 25 percent of the brisket’s total weight before you start to cook. Therefore, if you’ve purchased a 12-pound brisket, you’ll end up with just 9 pounds for the smoker.

Size

This brings us to the next most important consideration: The size of the cut. As we pointed out, you can expect a whole tri tip to weigh somewhere between three or four pounds. Because of its location and the nature of the cut, the butcher naturally winds up with smaller portions. Of course, if you’re serving a multitude of people, it’s possible to purchase more than one whole tri tip. In these cases, it’s best to contact the merchant in advance to make sure they’ll have enough to sell you.

The brisket, meanwhile, contains both of the major muscles that the cow uses in order to remain upright. As you can imagine, this means that the cut is gigantic—usually in the neighborhood of 12 to 20 pounds. This makes it an excellent choice for large groups or plentiful leftovers—or even a combination of both.

What does this mean for the average shopper? If you’re serving a small group—say, two to six people—a whole tri tip is a great choice. For bigger parties, consider taking the plunge and ordering a brisket instead. It might seem like a ton of meat, but it’s so tasty that it will disappear in no time—and if not, the leftovers make great sandwiches the next day.

Preparation

Perhaps the most obvious difference between brisket and tri tip is the manner of preparation.

If you’re an experienced cook, you’ll know that lean cuts of meat require a shorter cooking time than their tougher, fattier counterparts. As such, tri tip doesn’t need to sit in the smoker for an entire afternoon. In fact, it can even be prepared like a steak, with just a quick sear on each side. We prefer to give it about an hour in the smoker, then sear it to give the outside an approximation of the bark that distinguishes great barbecue. For more information on how to cook a tri tip, see Cooking Instructions, below.

Brisket, on the other hand, is tailor-made for the smoker. The tougher muscles require a long, slow cooking application in order to achieve a proper breakdown. If you’re looking to smoke a brisket, you should plan on getting up early in the morning. You’ll want to smoke the meat for at least an hour and a half per pound at a low temperature— around 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lastly, note that tri tip is far easier for first-timers to prepare. If this is your first experiment with the smoker, it might be a good idea to stick with a smaller tri tip to see how it turns out.

Flavor

Neither of these cuts are slouches when it comes to taste, but there are slight variances in their flavor profiles. Tri tip offers a robust beefy flavor, but with the buttery notes that are characteristic of leaner steak. The brisket also delivers a strong beefy taste, but the bark and the smoke rings imparted by the long cooking process give the flavor more dimension.

Availability

Depending on where you live, it will probably be easier to get your hands on a brisket than a tri tip. Most major supermarkets and local grocers carry some manner of brisket, even if it’s just the flat or the point. Tri tip is harder to come by, especially in more rural spots. Some smaller specialty markets might have it in stock, but if you live in a less populated area of the country, you’ll probably have to do some serious digging if you have your heart set on this cut.

Cooking Instructions

In this section, we’ll clue you in on how to prepare both brisket and tri tip to get the most satisfying results from each.

How To Smoke Brisket

1. Make sure the brisket is properly chilled. This will make your trimming job that much easier.

2. Using a boning knife, remove the deckle (the thick membrane) from the brisket. Trim off the excess fat until you’re left with a cap about 1/4 inch thick.

3. Let the brisket sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

4. Apply the seasoning rub, working it all over the surface of the meat so it adheres.

5. Allow the brisket to sit at room temperature for another hour to let the seasoning penetrate the meat. The salt will “dry brine” the brisket during this time, which will make the finished brisket unbelievably juicy.

6. Set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the type of smoker you use, you might want to do this as soon as you’ve applied the seasoning rub.

7. Add the brisket to the smoker with the fat cap facing up.

8. Smoke the meat for at least 1.5 hours per pound, checking the temperature periodically with an instant-read meat thermometer.

*NOTE: When the brisket hits a window of 150-160 degrees, the temperature will appear to freeze in place for a couple of hours. This is known as the “stall,” and it occurs when the moisture in the meat begins to evaporate, thereby wicking away the heat. It’s a perfectly normal phenomenon, so don’t panic when the thermometer doesn’t rise for a while.

9. When the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s time to take it out of the smoker. Wrap the brisket in a layer of parchment paper, then a second layer of aluminum foil.

10. Let the meat rest for an hour, covered by a kitchen towel.

11. Take the brisket out of the wrapper and use a sharp knife to slice it against the grain. You can make the slices as thick or thin as you wish, but we prefer a thickness of about 1/4 inch—roughly the width of a pencil.

For a visual demonstration on properly smoked brisket, take a look at this video tutorial.

How To Prepare Tri Tip

1. Use a sharp knife to trim any excess fat from the meat. Pat dry with paper towels.

2. If desired, apply a seasoning rub. We think tri tip is best seasoned with a simple blend of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, but feel free to experiment.

3. Let the meat sit at room temperature while you set the smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Add the tri tip to the smoker and let it cook for about an hour, or until the meat registers 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

5. Sear the meat over the hottest portion of the grill for about 30 seconds per side. Some smokers come equipped with a searing station, which is an ideal feature if you’re planning on cooking tri tip on a regular basis.

6. Allow the meat to rest for 20 minutes to let the juices redistribute.

7. Slice the tri tip across the grain and serve.

The Bottom Line

So, which cut of meat should you choose?

As you can see, the decision depends on many different factors. Tri tip offers a small cut of meat that’s fairly simple to prepare, with a broad margin for error. The meat is delicious and tender, with a beefy flavor to rival the juiciest cut of ribeye. However, you might have a hard time getting your hands on a whole tri tip.

On the other hand, you have brisket, which is easier to come by. It’s just as flavorful as tri tip, with mouthwatering juiciness, but it also requires a longer cooking process and a great deal of patience. If you make a mistake in the preparation, your brisket can have a dry, leathery texture—a poor reward for a long day’s work.

In the end, it comes down to how much you’re willing to spend, how many people you’re serving, and how long you have to dedicate to the cooking process. With any luck, this guide has helped to steer you toward the right decision.

Happy grilling!

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