How To Cut Tri Tip

Sliced tri tip

Tri tip has gained a ton of popularity over the last 50 or so years.  It went from being a Santa Maria California specialty to widely available in supermarkets and butcher shops across the United States.   It’s no wonder why either.  If it’s prepared right, it can be an extremely tender, flavorful and delicious cut of beef.  Because of its thickness (roughly 2 to 3 inches) it’s a fairly forgiving cut to smoke or grill as well.  If you haven’t tried to make a tri tip yet, keep reading to learn how to slice it and then visit our smoked tri tip recipe to learn how to smoke the best tri tip you will ever eat.

What Is Tri Tip?

Tri tip is a triangular cut (hence the name tri tip) from the bottom sirloin which is located near the rear of the cow.  Depending on the size of the cow, it can weigh anywhere from 3-5 pounds and around 2-3 inches thick.  Before it is trimmed it has a fat cap on it but most of the time when you see it in the grocery store or butcher it will have already been trimmed.  Once you know what it looks like, you will be able to recognize it right away due to its long triangular shape.

Beef Diagram

The History Of Tri Tip

Bob Schultz is widely recognized as the person who brought tri tip to mainstream American back in the 1950’s.  Schultz was a manager at a Safeway supermarket in Santa Maria back in the 1950’s.  Up until then, tri tip was usually ground into hamburger but due to a hamburger surplus in the store, Schultz decided to season the cut with some salt pepper and garlic and placed it on the rotisserie.  Everyone liked it so he decided to start marketing the cut of meat as its own separate cut known as “tri tip”.

Understanding Meat Grain

Meat grain or the grain of the meat is simply the direction that the muscle fibers are growing.  Each muscle grows in a specific direction to help accomplish it’s specific purpose.  Every different cut of beef will have a different direction the grain of the meat is going.  Some muscles, like tri tip, will actually have two two different directions that the grain is going.  Identifying it is fairly easy once you know what you are looking for. 

Once you get the tri tip out of the package and trimmed (if it didn’t come that way) lay it on a cutting board.  You will notice that the muscle fibers seem to be running the same direction.  Staring at the skinny part of the tri tip, they will all run the long ways of the tri tip and then roughly ⅔ up it will make a 45 degree turn towards the point on the wider part of the tri tip. 

Why It’s Important To Cut Tri Tip Against The Grain

It’s important to cut the tri tip and any cut of beef for that matter, against the grain because it will make the final product much more tender.  Think about a long braid of hair (random I know, but go with me here) laying in front of you from left to right.  Now if you tried to pull the braid apart by pulling on it left and right, the same way the braid goes, it would be really strong and unless you were Dwayne The Rock Johnson, you probably wouldn’t be able to pull it apart. 

Now what if you pulled the braid apart the other way?  Instead of left to right, you pulled it up and down.  It would come apart really easy.  Think about meat grain the same way.  You want to pull against the fibers, not with them.  If you do this, each cut of beef you prepare will be much more tender and you will end up with a better final product.

Cutting Tri Tip

Tri Tip
The grain of the tri tip is going in the directions of the white arrows. You can see the muscle fibers going in those directions. The orange line is where the grain changes directions.

After you smoke, grill or cook the tri tip to the temperature you want, place it on a cutting board in front of you.  As we mentioned above, there will be a spot roughly about ⅔ down the tri tip where it makes a 45 degree angle from the skinny part of the tri tip to the wide part.  This is where the grain of the meat slightly changes directions.  Start by cutting the tri tip at that angle.  Now you will have two separate pieces.  All you need to do now is identify the way the grain is going on each piece and cut perpendicular to the grain or at a 90 degree angle from the grain. 

I find it best to cut roughly ½ inch slices but each person has a different preference.  If you like thicker pieces cut them thicker.  If you like thinner pieces cut them thinner.  Take into account what you are doing with it too.  If you are just eating them as steaks, thick is fine.  If you are making them into sandwiches, thinner will probably be better.  

Tri Tip Beef Steak
Tri tip should be sliced perpendicular to the grain of the meat. The orange lines represent where the meat should be sliced.

Wrapping It Up

Tri tip isn’t the only cut of beef you need to cut against the grain.  Almost every cut will benefit by being cut by the grain.  It will make everything more tender and easier to chew.  If you haven’t tried tri tip yet, go out and get one and try it. Here is our smoked tri tip recipe.  I promise you won’t be disappointed in this cut of beef.  

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