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The Best and Easiest Grilling Recipe Ever - Santa Maria Tri-Tip

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Labor Day has come and gone, signaling the "end of summer". But seriously, we're in Los Angeles, so what the fuck does this arbitrary marker have anything to do with altering our almost flawless grilling weather year round? In fact, I would venture to say that it will not even be ideal outdoor entertaining weather for another month or so, and if you are anything like me, you are willing to fire up the grill, drink beer, and talk shit in LA pretty much any night of the year. Maybe you will even take a bong rip, but who am I to judge. As Angelenos, this scenario is our inalienable birthright, and one of the best things about our wonderful city.

Which brings me to the recipe at hand. In Santa Maria, California, there is a long tradition of grilling beef topblock over huge open pits of oak. So-called Santa Maria BBQ is certainly the most significant historical use of a grill west of the Mississippi. While not truly barbecue, which is technically a slow cooking method using indirect heat that produces smoke, a true Santa Maria pit is full of dried raw oak and features a grill that lowers and raises above the fire using a system of pullies. Using this system, the meat gets a slightly smoky flavor from the wood, but cooks in a substantially faster time than using indirect heat.

By reversing this process, you can reproduce the amazing flavors of true Santa Maria BBQ in your backyard on a much smaller scale, using a 2-3 lb. tri-tip in place of a 20 lb topblock. Looking to watch your urbane clique revert to their primal roots, forsaking knife, fork, and plate for fingers, bulged eyes, and wide smiles? Want to see your veggie and vegan friends split into groups of people either salivating because they want a taste, or are fully repulsed at such a carnivorous feast? Want to make something awesome, with $20, and at the last minute for a group of 4-5 people? This is your answer.

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Full step-by-step instructions with photos after the jump.

As a kid, I helped prepare this dish for thousands of people. My dad had a welder create a huge diamond-plated pit that fit neatly inside the back of a Ford F-150, and we endeavored back and forth across the southland cooking beef for several hundred people at a time. As I went into college, having my own apartment, and entertaining for a smaller group of friends, I set out to learn a method for recreating the true flavor of Santa Maria-style BBQ using a typical charcoal grill. This is my best attempt.

Santa Maria Tri-Tip
2-3 lb. beef tri-tip roast
garlic powder
fresh course ground pepper
kosher salt
wood chips

You may look at the above and say to yourself, "©, how could something with only five ingredients possibly live up to the extraordinary hype you ascribe to this recipe?" That's normal. The beauty of this recipe is that a trained monkey with a meat thermometer could pull this off. Deliciously, and with aplomb.

If you can, use a tri-tip with the fat-cap left on. This recipe works fine with or without the cap of fat, but will be better with the fat. This isn't diet food; this is caveman food, so there is no reason to skimp at this point.

Step 1: Soak the Wood Chips
Take whatever wood chips you have, and soak them in a bowl or bucket of water for 30 minutes. I prefer mesquite or hickory, but you can use any dry, aromatic wood like maple, oak, or cherry.

Step 2: Prepare the Beef
Rub both sides of a room temperature tri-tip with kosher salt, garlic powder, and lots of course, freshly ground black pepper. Don't be stingy with the spices. The spice develops the crust that typifies the Santa Maria steezo.

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This is the lean side of the tri-tip, rubbed with the spices.

This is the fat-cap side of the tri-tip, rubbed with the spices.

Step 3: Prepare the fire

I recommend using a chimney with lump charcoal instead of briquettes and lighter fluid. Lump charcoal is made of charred wood. Briquettes are made of sawdust, cardboard, and anything else that will burn. Lighter fluid is a petroleum product, and tastes like, well, a petroleum product. Get some lump charcoal and a chimney and the taste of anything you are grilling will be better. Period.

Once your coals are ready, split them into two piles on either side of your cooking surface. Close the hood on your grill for about 5 minutes, and then brush the grill clean.

Place your soaked wood chips onto the coals, and position your tri-tip FAT SIDE UP between the piles of coals. Close the grill hood, and note the time.

Depending on the heat of your fire and your desire for doneness, total cooking time should range between 35 and 60 minutes. I typically turn at 15 minutes per side, and then 5 minutes per side for a 2.75 lb tri-tip when the crowd is mostly into medium doneness. If you have a bunch of vampires on set, you can go 15 minutes per side and be done with it.

If you want to do it precisely and properly, use an instant-read meat thermometer. It takes the guesswork out of the process and will result in consistent grilling. In this case, my guests are on the medium side of the spectrum, so I grilled to around 150 degrees. A lot of purists would throw away a steak this well done, but at 150 along the edges, you will make just about everybody happy. The interior of the tri-tip will end up around 135-140 degrees, which will satisfy the medium rare peeps. If your whole crowd is the medium rare to rare variety, reduce these temperatures by 5-10 degrees.

Here is the finished tri-tip.

Medium in the house.

Step 4: Tent Roast and Sharpen Your Knife
Now it is time to let the tri-tip tent-roast. Cover the tri-tip with aluminum foil for ten minutes. The temperature will continue to rise during that time, and the juices will seal within the tri-tip. If you try to carve before letting the beef set for a minute, the meat will lose a lot of its juices, which is not a good thing.

Tent with aluminum foil for 10 minutes

Meanwhile, sharpen your carving knife. I use a Forschner that is older than I am, passed down to me from my father from the old school days. Henckels also makes an excellent carving knife. Either are available from your local downtown / Koreatown restaurant supply for about $40 each. Get one, and then throw away your shitty block of Ikea knives. It's better to spread butter with a quality knife that resembles a machete than it is to try to cut a quality piece of beef with a die-cast throwaway with a questionable edge.

Using a sharp knife makes all the difference in the world. I use a set of ceramic sticks to sharpen, and a steel to hone.

Step 5: Carve and Serve

This is the final product, ready to get touched.

You ideally want to carve across the grain of the meat, but this preparation is so tender that it doesn't matter if it is carved exactly across the grain. The way most tri-tip roasts are cut, it is going to be most natural to cut diagonally across the grain, which is fine. This preparation is so tender that even if you were to cut fully with the grain, it would still easily be able to be cut with a fork, or more apropos, using a set of human teeth. I wasn't kidding about the caveman thing.

Slice to 1/4" - 1/2".

Traditionally, Santa Maria-style tri-tip would be served with pinquito beans and grilled French bread. In this case, I kept the French bread toast and opted for a spinach salad. In my opinion, the flavors of the beef will be fully set off by a massive cabernet, but in the words of Digital Underground, drinkwhatyalike.

Serve with garlic toast, spinach salad, and an excellent cab.

Enjoy! ©

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