Fourth of July

Holy Smoke Santa Maria Tri-Tip

December  1, 2011
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

When you cook this, your neighbors may think the College of Cardinals have selected a new Pope because white smoke will be wafting over the 'hood. This is a California Central Coast specialty. If you are driving from Ventura County to the top of San Luis Obispo County, you’ll see medieval-looking grill rigs set up in farmers markets, liquor store parking lots, and many other places off Highway 101. If you smell smoldering oak in the air, someone is probably grilling tri-tip nearby.

The seasonings here are mostly traditional; primarily salt and pepper. But I like to add a little more spice to it in the form of good Spanish pimentón. You can buy some pretty okay commercial rubs, but they do contain things like “flowing agents” which don’t improve the flavor.
Two untraditional things I do are to use an internal brine, and then to serve it up with an Argentinian chimichurri sauce on the side. I picked up the brine idea from butcher Tom Mylan, as described in the book Primal Cuts by Marissa Guggiana. He uses an internal brine for prime rib. I’ve used it for that with great success and thought that tri-tip was the next outrage I could pull off—and indeed, it worked! You will need an injector for this, but they are cheap. The meat remains moist while you still get that kind of burnt, crusty exterior that we love here.
The other untraditional aspect to this yippee-ay-o classic is chimichurri. The Argentinians are masters of the grill and I bow down to them and their chimichurri goes so well with grilled meat that I resort to it all the time as a homemade table condiment.

*Note to cooks: It drives me nuts to watch patio daddy-o’s constantly flipping steaks and burgers. It only slows down the cooking process to where you just end up with road kill. My own dad was a master at that. —pierino

Test Kitchen Notes

WHO: Pierino is a Food52 veteran and defender of well-cooked eggs and tri-tip.
WHAT: Classic California tri-tip, with an Argentinian edge.
HOW: Brine the tri-tip internally by injecting it with salt water, then let it marinate overnight. Rub it with more salt, pepper, and pimentón, then grill it until it's cooked through, there's a plume of smoke rising from your grill, and the edges of the meat are crispy. Dab your eyes and serve with chimichurri.
WHY WE LOVE IT: Buying a plane ticket to California is (unfortunately) not always within our reach, but grilling this tri-tip is the next best thing. It has all the crispy edges, salt, and smoke that makes our West Coast favorite so irresistible. —The Editors

  • Serves 6 to 8
  • For the tri-tip:
  • 3/4 cup salt, divided
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Spanish pimentón de la Vera or piment d’Esplette
  • one 2- to 3-pound tri-tip
  • For the chimichurri:
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro
  • 8 to 10 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • Generous pinch sea salt
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
In This Recipe
  1. One day before cooking, prepare the brine by bringing water to a boil and dissolving 1/2 cup of the sea salt into it. It may not dissolve completely, but don’t worry about that part. Using a meat injector, squirt a good shot into the thickest part of the meat. Place it into a zipper bag and refrigerate overnight.
  2. To make the chimichurri (which you can make ahead), stem and chop the parsley and cilantro, then place them in the bowl of a food processor with the rest of the ingredients, with the exception of the olive oil. Pulse a couple of times until well-chopped, then, with the motor running on low, gradually drizzle in the olive oil. Let it rest.
  3. Start your coal grill, preferably using the chimney method
  4. In a pie pan or a large plate with high edges, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of salt salt, pepper, and pimentón. Rub it all over the tri-tip (don’t skimp on the salt part).
  5. When your fire is hot enough, grill the meat, flipping it only once, until it hits an internal temperature of 130° F. Remove it from the grill and transfer it to a platter to let it rest covered in foil for 10 minutes.
  6. Carve and serve along with the chimichurri as a condiment.

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Standup commis flâneur, and food historian. Pierino's background is in Italian and Spanish cooking but of late he's focused on frozen desserts. He is now finishing his cookbook, MALAVIDA! Can it get worse? Yes, it can. Visit the Malavida Brass Knuckle cooking page at Facebook and your posts are welcome there.