Fourth of July

Holy Smoke Santa Maria Tri-Tip With Brine

December  1, 2011
3 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Serves 6 to 8
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

What You'll Need
  • 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
  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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Vince Lok
    Vince Lok
  • gabsimonelouise
  • pierino
  • zoemetro uk
    zoemetro uk
  • GordonW
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.

19 Reviews

edebeau October 20, 2019
It's always interesting to read what people are saying and thinking. I love the passion and good natured " discussions" I find here.
Just wanted to say thank you for the tri tip recipe. I'm from the Central Valley, known as asparagus country. Always love a good tri tip and grilled asparagus sandwich on a sourdough french roll.
Vince L. December 10, 2018
If i’m not mistaken, Spanish pimenton is also called smoked paprika? If so that might be easier to track down at the grocery store.
Eireen H. October 4, 2017
I have eaten at Jacko's (often) and at Far Western and when I make my trip tip I opt for the lotto f garlic method and a barbecue seasoning. But now I thin k I will opt for the garlic, forget the barbecue rub and go for the chimichurri. My question is about the chimichurri. Here in San Diego our bunches of cilantro are huge as are our bunches of parsley. When I am on the East Coast I have to adjust my measurements to allow for this. I would appreciate knowing what you think is the equivalent cup measurements for the cilantro and parsley.
pierino October 5, 2017
A cup here is really just a suggestion. It's as much as you would like it to be after you've chopped it up.
Charlie M. September 15, 2016
No instructions for the brine? 'Bring water to a boil", how much water?
pierino September 15, 2016
The brine is really to your own taste. Personally I would use about 1/2 teaspoon sea salt to one quart of water. But add more salt if you prefer.
pierino September 15, 2016
I should add that I'm trying to cut back on the amount of salt I use these days, but you can't dispense with it completely.
Charlie M. September 15, 2016
Thanks! I was surprised to see internal brining in the recipe, Ive cooked many a tri tip and they're pretty hard to screw up, but judging by the love on here for this recipe Im certainly willing to give it a go.
terry April 29, 2017
Sounds like a great recipe, but this is NOT Santa Maria Style Tri Tip. As a native Santa Marian (moved there in 1962) I know what it really is. A plain Tri Tip roast, heavily seasoned with garlic salt and pepper and cooked to medium or medium rare over red oak. It is then sliced and placed in a pan to sit with the meat juices before serving. Just that; no brine or other fancy stuff. Santa Maria Style!
pierino April 29, 2017
Like all barbecue no two grill cook, no matter what is real and what have heresy.
terry April 30, 2017
pierino: True, but to call it Santa Maria Style it HAS to be done a certain way. The town is famous for that specifically; it is not my opinion nor my invention. Whether you order it in one of the local restaurants or buy it off a street vendor, it is always done the same way or it is called something else. It is a local institution, not a personal recipe. If you have never been to Santa Maria and sampled it, you are just blowing through your hat. Oh, and by the way, Santa Maria Style BBQ can be made with either Tri Tip of Top Block. I prefer Tri Tip myself. ;)
terry April 30, 2017
pierino April 30, 2017
Oh, I have been to Santa Maria many times. I think I know every
pierino April 30, 2017
...every mile of 101 between LA and San Francisco. As to Santa Maria, I've been to Shaw's quite a few times.
terry April 30, 2017
I have lived there since "61. Shaws? You must be joking! Try Far Western or The Hitchin' Post if you want real Santa Maria style Tri Tip. And don't forget Jocko's! Nothing else comes close. Too bad the city cracked down on all the little street vendors. That was the best! Shaws USED to be good, back in the 60's and 70's. Changed hands. No local would call that recipe you have "Santa Maria Style". No slam on the quality of your recipe; its just NOT Santa Maria Style.
GordonW July 12, 2020
That's really at odds with the first step in the recipe, which calls for 1/2 cup of salt. At 1/2 t of salt to 1 q of water, that would make 12 gallons of brine. A more typical brine is 4T of salt per quart
gabsimonelouise June 19, 2015
Oh man I miss tri-tip! I went to school at Cal Poly SLO and couldn't get enough of that meat.
pierino December 2, 2011
zoemetrouk, you can absolutely use this method on a standing rib roast. Indeed that was how I first learned to do it. It seems to work with any meat that offers large muscle mass.
zoemetro U. December 2, 2011
I must try this internal brining on Sunday with your divine peppers and quinoa that we devoured at Thanksgiving dinner. Thank you so much for that recommendation. (Our divine guest from Paris, M. Olivier, was especially appreciative.) As well, do you think I could also inject the brine into a standing rib roast?