FRESNO, Calif. — With football season and tailgating in full swing, perhaps there is no better time to cook up a tri-tip, that triangle-shaped hunk of meat we’ve grown to love.
Texas has brisket, but California has tri-tip — a slab of beef whose origin dates back to the 1950s.
Created by a Santa Maria, Calif., butcher, the tri-tip actually is the bottom portion of the sirloin. For years, it was considered too tough for anything but hamburger or stew meat. But meat cutters found that by coating it with a basic rub of salt, pepper and garlic and cooking it over a red oak fire, the meat could be extremely tender and flavorful. The rest, as they say, is history.
These days, tri-tip can be found at grocery stores, or restaurants that sell barbecue. But cooking it always has been a challenge for some. Either the meat is woefully undercooked or burned into something resembling charcoal.
At The Meat Market, a popular butcher shop with locations in Fresno and Clovis, Calif., people can buy tri-tip fully prepared or dry rubbed and ready for the grill.
“Believe it or not, we still have people who have never tried it before,” says Anna Tasier, a partner in the butcher shop. “So we try and help them as much as we can.”
For starters, Tasier says choose a tri-tip that has good marbling and has a deep red color.
CJ Bird of Roaming Bird BBQ, a food caterer in Fresno, does not generally trim the fat off of his tri-tip, unless it is extremely dense.
“You really don’t want to take a whole lot off, because that is where you get some of the flavor,” Bird says.
As for what to put on the meat, that will depend on your personal taste. Traditionalists use a Santa Maria-style dry rub of salt, pepper and garlic salt. Others like to use a marinade, soaking the meat for several hours or even overnight.
Eric Wagner, of Outlaws Barbecue, a Fresno catering company, likes to marinade his tri-tip in a mixture of beer, Italian dressing and other “secret spices” he won’t divulge.
There are also several dry rubs and marinades at grocery stores, including several from local company Pappy’s Fine Foods.
Cooking tri-tip can be done in a variety of ways, including the oven, barbecue and smoker.
One of the simplest methods is on a charcoal barbecue. Line up the briquets on one side of the grill and when the coals are ready, sear the tri-tip on all sides, about 3 to 4 minutes. Move it off the direct heat and continue cooking, turning occasionally. Depending on the size of meat, cooking time will vary from 45 minutes to one hour.
Experts also suggest using a meat thermometer to determine when the tri-tip is ready. For medium rare — a little pink inside — the temperature should reach 130 degrees to 135 degrees.
At that point, take the meat off the grill, wrap it in foil and let it rest for at least 15 minutes.
And always slice against the grain of the meat. Doing so, shortens the muscle fibers, making it easier to chew.
“Cooking tri-tip does take a little patience,” says Al Echols, of Fresno, a competitive barbecue cook. “But once you get it down, it will taste really good.”