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.