Barbecue – meat cooked in the heat and smoke of a wood fire – is an American tradition. Different parts of the country have their distinctive styles of barbecue: pulled pork from North Carolina, pork spareribs from Tennessee, beef brisket from Texas. Even California has it’s own distinctive style of barbecue: the tri-tip.
Smoked Tri Tip Roast
Tri-tip is a cut of beef not normally seen in parts outside the western United States. It’s a triangular-shaped (hence the name “tri-tip”) piece of meat from the bottom of the sirloin. It is tender, has just the right amount of fat, and can be roasted, braised, made into ground beef, cut into steaks and grilled, or as I like to prepare it, smoked.
Barbecued tri-tip is very popular in the Central Coast area of California, around Santa Maria. The way they do it is to season the roasts simply with salt, pepper, garlic powder and parsley, then cook them on large grills suspended about a foot over coals made from the red oaks common to the area. Since I don’t have a large grill or logs of red oak readily available, I will be cooking my tri-tip roast in my trusty Weber Smokey Mountain bullet smoker. Yes, Veronica, it is possible to do high-temperature grilling on the WSM.
But first, a rant about lighting charcoal.
When I was a kid back in Hawaii, I used to watch my uncle light his charcoal by splashing gasoline from his gas can onto the pile of charcoal, then tossing a lit match from about 3 feet away. It made a big “whoomp” sound and produced an awe-inspiring fireball before dying back down. Whatever we’d grill over it had a distinctive taste of gasoline on it. YUM.
It seems that a lot of people learned how to start charcoal from the same school my uncle did. Because even today, I see people doing the same thing, except with large squeeze bottles of lighter fluid instead of gas cans. What’s worse, they will actually squirt the fluid onto the burning flame! Can you say “third degree burns“?
Once the lighter fluid burns off after a minute, the coals are (of course) still not lit. What’s the next step? Fanning, of course. The pyromaniac grabs an empty pizza box or a thick section of newspaper and begins vigorously flapping his makeshift fan up and down, side to side, in an effort to turn that small flicker of red into a medium-sized flame. He huffs and puffs and blows himself blue, silently wishing for a hair dryer and a very long extension cord. After 15 sweaty minutes, the coals are about ready to go. Success!
Now, if you’ve learned from this “fireball then fan” school of charcoal lighting, may I suggest a safer, saner alternative? Get yourself a charcoal chimney. You just load it up with charcoal, crumple up a couple or three sheets of newspaper (I like to use veggie oil-infused paper towels because they don’t make as much smoke and ash) into the bottom of the chimney, light the paper, and let it go. As Confucius say, “Set it and forget it!” Fifteen minutes later, you’ll have flames coming out the top and coals ready to cook. Plus, no nasty lighter fluid flavor on your food!
Charcoal chimneys run you around $15 at most hardware stores. Get one. It’s cheaper than a trip to the emergency room.
Alright, getting back to the tri-tip…
1, 3-lb tri-tip roast, trimmed of excess fat (if you can’t find tri-tip roast at your local grocery, try a 3-lb sirloin roast.)
3 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1/2 tsp dried parsley flakes
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1. Rinse off the roast, pat dry, and trim the excess fat off, leaving at most a 1/4 inch thick fat cap on one side of the roast. Once you’ve got the charcoal chimney started, rub the seasoning mixture all over the roast.
2. Pour the coals out into the WSM’s charcoal ring. Take the top grate and put it directly onto the charcoal ring. Lay the roast, fat side up, onto the grate. Grill for 2.5 to 3 minutes to get a good sear, then flip and sear another 2.5 to 3 minutes.
3. In the mean time, take the water pan out of the WSM’s middle section, then put the bottom grate back in. Once the tri-tip is done searing, move the roast to the bottom grate. Remove the top grate from the charcoal ring.
4. Since authentic Santa Maria tri-tip uses red oak coals for their distinctive smoke flavor, I toss chunks of red oak onto the charcoal. A friend of mine brought back a bag of chunks for me from Santa Barbara. If you can’t get red oak chunks, use whatever kind of oak wood you can get your hands on.
5. Place the middle section of the WSM, containing the tri-tip roast, over the bottom section. The meat is now sitting about 2 feet directly over the burning coals. Insert a probe thermometer into the middle of the roast, then cover with the top section. Leave all the bottom vents open for maximum airflow. What we want to do is raise the temperature up above 350* F so that we’re up in the high barbecue / low grilling range.
6. Leave the roast alone – no peeking! If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’ (remember Confucius?) Set your target temperature for 145* for medium doneness. It should take a half hour to 45 minutes. When the roast hits the target temp, remove it from the smoker, set it aside and tent it to rest for 15 minutes.
7. Slice the tri-tip thinly across the grain. You should be able to clearly see the grain as it runs across the top of the meat.
Serve it with roasted potatoes or other grilled veggies. Savor the salty, garlicky rub and the bold smokiness of the oak. Oak smoked tri-tip goes great with cabernet sauvignon or other big red wines. If you have any leftovers (a big “if”, because that meat is very addictive), you can eat it the next day on a French roll slathered with butter and toasted under a broiler, or grilled just like they do down in Santa Maria: