5 Meaty Facts about Tri Tip

1)  The tri tip cut is a triangular cut (3 tips, 3 = tri, therefore, tri tip – genius!).  The cut comes from the back half of the cow; there is one cut per side of beef, meaning that each cow graciously gives us two tri tips (yeah – math!).  When you purchase a tri tip roast at the market, you will find that most cuts are anywhere between 1.5 to 4 pounds.

2) The tri tip cut used to be available on the West Coast only, but it has grown in popularity over the past few years and can be found in many membership stores across the United States.  Tri tip can be called by different names (the California cut, sirloin tip and triangle cut); if you have a hard time locating it, ask your butcher to hook you up (any butcher worth his salt knows about this cut).  More names and info here!

3) Why does it taste so good?  It is lower in fat when compared to most cuts; it is the opinion of many that the leaner the cut, the tastier.  Another reason is that tri tip has great marbling, which is the muscle fat found in beef cuts.  This type of fat adds incredible flavor throughout the cut and the cuts of beef that have a higher amount of marbling receive a higher “grade.”

4)  The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) constructed a grade system as it pertains to beef.  Basically, the cuts of beef are graded on two things – marbling and maturity.  A cut of beef will receive a higher grade if it has a great deal of marbling and it is a younger cut of beef.  There are many grades, but the three you should be aware of are:

  • USDA Prime Grade:  typically found in high-end steakhouses
  • USDA Choice Grade:  found in many supermarkets and middle-end, franchise steakhouses
  • USDA Select Grade:  found in most supermarkets

You will pay more money for quality.  I STRONGLY suggest that you cough up the extra money and purchase (at least) USDA Select.  Remember this:  no amount of seasoning or marinade can cover up a bad cut.  You should be proud of what you serve, and a great cut can make all the difference.

5)  You can expect to pay anywhere between $3.99/lb to $6.99/lb for USDA Choice tri tip roasts that have been trimmed for you.  When a tri tip arrives at the butcher, it has a layer of fat on one side (which can be between a quarter of an inch to an inch thick).  A trimmed cut will have removed most of that fat ahead of time, as well as the silver skin (a silvery connective tissue that has no taste and zero nutritional value). A good butcher will leave some of that fat on there, and that’s all good – trim off what you don’t want.  A shady butcher will trim very little and it will be placed fat-side-down in the black foam tray; it will get shrink-wrapped and placed out in the display.

NOTE:  Beware of sale prices on tri tip – if you find tri tip for $2.49/lb, you need to read the fine print before you start dancing around like Jojo the Idiot Circus Boy!  Typically, these are untrimmed cuts of beef that are a pain in the butt to deal with…and the math doesn’t make sense.  You may think you found a great deal, but you are throwing money in the trash after you trim off a pound of fat.

This article has 28 Comments

  1. Good stuff Tri Tip Guy!!! I like the humor and
    the good advice!! Looking forward to all the
    upcoming videos and tips!!

  2. I did not think about how they leave the fat on there and sell them at a discount. Tricky Tricky. Thanks Tri Tip Guy for the TIP!

  3. With USDA select and choice selling for around $6.99 lb here in No. California, I find that buying it with the cap on in 12-16# bags is a way better deal. Yes, your paying for the fat cap but you can usually feel around the bags and find one that’s acceptable.

    Trimming it with a good knife is just like skinnin’ a deer hide. Comes off pretty clean!. Wrapped good and frozen means Tri Tip BBQ 4-5 times during the summer!

    1. That’s a good word – I stock up on those large vacuum packs when they go on sale, and tri tip if frozen then defrosted. When I am cooking using indirect heat, I never trim the fat cap off. The reason I suggest this is because that cap will often catch fire and destroy the roast when direct grilling. And you’re right – the cap is easy to remove.

  4. This cut is amazing when you get the Select cut. My local butcher pre-marinades it Sweet Smokey he calls it. I normally get as close to 2lb cut & if i need more, I just stay with the same size & get 2 or more (no more than 2″ thick trimmed). After they are left at room temp (about 70 degrees F) before they hit the grill, I smoke them for an hour to 1-1/2 hours 1 or two pans of hickory chips in my little smoker & it covers about 10 – 15% of the cooking cycle. It’s not the fancy high tech smoker but simple is best when it comes to me. Then it off to my grill @ 325 degrees F for no more than about 13 minutes per side (I like it more rare to medium rare) not directly above the flame but off to one side. Stick it with temp sensor & if it’s 130 degrees, that’s how I like it. Pull it off the grill & let it set for about 10-15 minutes before cutting into it. Toughest 10-15 minutes of my life. After that cut in thin crosscut strips & it goes great with home made Bearnaise sauce.

  5. I buy mine from costco, they say the fat is “pulled off” rather than trimmed. Not sure how this is acomplished but I like the result as the marbling is enough for me. To get the best deal you have to do the stock up thing otherwise its $10 dollars a lb…..spend a little more money and freeze some and its 6.5lb, its worth the slightly more then other places as the taste and no extra fat to deal with. Even my cats go crazy when one is being cooked up. All I do is a small amount of ms dash on each side as it gets turned.

    1. I’m usually happy with Costco’s selection of tri tip – they must hold their butchers to high standards.

      Now about that other warehouse store…nah – I’ll be nice!

      1. They stopped carrying it here in Austin, Texas…not sure about elsewhere.

        Local butcher shops want in the area of $19/pound for it…which is rediculous.


  6. I absolutely love tri tip I’ve been eating it my whole life. I grew up in the San Juanquine valley where tri tip is KING. lately while trimming the fat I sometimes come across a circular parasite? I’m curious to know if anybody is familiar with what exactly this is. Aloha

  7. Hi Eric,
    I love this stuff, invented right here in California.
    I’m hungry already at this hour of the morning for tri-tip! I’m down here in San Diego…….on the edge of a town called Poway to be exact.
    We have spent many afternoons roasting this stuff over the years in a simple charcoal fired kettle using indirect heat. Good stuff! I’ll have to get me some red oak logs and sticks and do an authentic tri-tip one day.

    Around here we call it cardiff crack, go ahead and google “cardiff crack”…….you know you want to! It’s a burgundy pepper marinated tri-tip at one of my favourite grocers done in a vacuum tumbler machine.
    One other meat/cut/recipe I would like to see migrate out to California here is Southern Maryland stuffed ham!

    1. Hey Paul – thanks for your comment! I LOVE the term “Cardiff Crack” – have heard it bandied about here and there, and I need to get down to San Diego to write a blog about it for the site. I grew up in SoCal (La Mirada, to be exact), and we were always BBQing and grilling something. Never heard of the stuffed ham – definitely going to Google that, because it sounds amazing. Cheers to you, my friend!

        1. When cooking for large groups, plan for 1/3 of a pound per person. You are looking at 33-35 pounds of tri tip.

  8. Learning how to cook well has become a new passion of mine. There was a lot of great information in this post about trip tip cuts and why it tastes good. I found it interesting that tri tip used to only be available on the West Coast. The fact that tri tip is lower in fat is also interesting and that definitely makes sense that tri tip would taste good because of this.

  9. Love your suggestions and tips posted here. We fell in love with this cut of meat a few years ago and are amazed at how easy it is to grill to perfection! We recently puchased a 20lb “whole” tri tip and wanted to ask if you had suggestions as to exactly how to “cut” this into 3-5 lb sections? Or a chart that can show how this can be done. Any direction is appreciated.

    1. Thanks! Regarding your dilemma…I have never purchased a 20-lb tri tip which was one whole roast (in fact, I never knew that existed – in which case, I need to get out there and find it!), but I have purchased a vacuum sealed package that included 5-6 tri tips that were cut. If it is one whole cut, I would lay it on the cutting board and cut into sections from left to right. Make each cut about 3 inches thick. The problem for me is that I don’t know how thick the roast is – it may be so thick that a good long smoke would take forever.

      The other idea is to look how the chefs cook a large brisket. There are loads of websites and videos about that – and as far as I know, they don’t cut the the roast up into smaller pieces. I gotta say – this is a unique situation. I am just throwing ideas out there – it’s what I would do if I was so blessed to have that monster tri tip in my hands! Good luck!

      1. Just got a 15lb tri tip (trimmed) at a local cash and carry (restaurant supply but open to the public) I am about to portion it out so this was helpful!

    1. Check with local butchers first – it will be more pricey, but worth it. Safeway is a good bet. I’m not sure if there is a Sprouts or Raley’s in Tracy – both good places to find prime.

  10. We have purchased an entire cow this year, looking forward to both tri tips. I’ve never had it, much less cooked it, but can’t wait!

    Slow smoked brisket. Lean burger for spaghetti, etc, more fat on the burgers – we’ve bought 1/2 cow before, but never dictated how we wanted it cut. Is there anywhere that can gives us a guide how we should have it butchered? Any help would be appreciated!


    1. I just did a quick Google search and discovered a plethora of information about butchering a cow. I am not sure if you are going to butcher it yourselves, or take it to a professional butcher. To butcher yourselves, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvIxvs39nBQ For a visual list of beef cuts, there is this image: http://www.parretts.com/meatprocessing/beefdiagramlarge.jpg

      I have never butchered a cow because I have never had the opportunity. Maybe one day – until then, I will visit the butcher!

  11. I scored 2 full cry bags of USDA Prime TriTips at Costco (San Juan Capistrano, CA) yesterday $5.05/lb. Most fat cap removed. I was surprised however at the size, smaller than the USDA Choice ones, and very thin. Doing them in convection oven for a big church dinner, 35 lb total. (Each bag was 17-17.5 lb) 350F Wolf Convection oven 29 minutes, per a Navy SEAL who is now catering. Tried 1 this way and was perfect. These are too thin to BBQ. would be done in 10-14 minutes over charcoal or red oak.

  12. The meat manager at a middle eastern market in La Mesa grills halal tri tip on Saturdays. They use a delicious rub and I can enjoy it fresh and hot without going to the trouble. Yum!

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