Smoked Tri Tip

Smoked Tri Tip being seared on a charcoal grill to finish
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Smoked Tri Tip is the solution if you’ve got a craving for smoked meat for dinner, but don’t want to wait a long time for it.

A relatively lean cut of meat, you can smoke a beef tri tip in your smoker or grill in about an hour or two, depending on its size and your desired internal temperature.

Smoked Tri Tip on a cutting board with a slice revealing a medium-rare doneness with a thin pink smoke ring

A tri tip smoked at 275 degrees Fahrenheit to an internal temperature of 126 degrees Fahrenheit with a seared outside finish.

Can a tri tip take longer than that to cook? Yes, it can, especially if your smoking temperature is 225°F or lower.

A smoked tri tip cut open to reveal a thick smoke ring around the outer portion of the meat

A 2.5lb tri tip smoked for two hours with a lot of smoke applied.

However, you’ll find that you can smoke your tri tip at temperatures between 250°F and 275°F and still achieve great results.

Because tri tip is relatively lean with little connective tissue compared to other cuts of beef, such as a brisket, extended amounts of smoking time will not make it more tender.

A smoked 2lb tri tip cut in half on cutting board revealing a medium rare interior

A tri tip smoked for 2 hours at an ambient temperature range of between 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other than a traditional smoker or pellet smoker, you can also smoke tri tip on a gas grill or charcoal grill by using indirect heat and some wood chips or chunks.

No matter what grill or smoker you’re cooking on, the best way to smoke a tri tip is by monitoring its internal temperature along with your smoking chamber’s temperature using a multi-probe meat thermometer.

Monitoring a tri tip on a smoker with two meat probes inserted and an ambient temperature pit probe

Tracking the thick and the thin parts of a tri tip as well as the pit temperature provides you all the cooking information you need.

One meat probe to track your tri tip’s internal temperature and one to track your ambient cooking temperature.

If you know those two temperatures then you don’t need to use cooking time as an indicator.

Smoked Tri Tip

The most critical step in smoked beef tri tip is keeping track of two temperatures and the rest will fall into place.

The first temperature you should focus on is your smoking temperature. You can smoke your tri tip anywhere from 225°F to 275°F with great results.

Smoked Tri Tip resting on a grill grate before being seared on the outside over direct heat

A smoked tri tip right before searing the outside over direct high heat to finish.

The second and most important temperature is your final serving temperature or the desired doneness of your meat.

The most popular serving temperature for tri-tip is a medium-rare to a medium internal temperature of between 130°F and 140°F.

Here’s a tri tip temperature guide for doneness:

  • Rare – 120°F to 130°F ( a little chewy)
A smoked tri tip cooked to rare doneness

An example of a rare smoked tri tip.

  • Medium-Rare- 130°F to 135°F (the best temperature range for tri tip taste and tenderness)
A medium-rare tri tip on a cutting board

An example of a medium-rare smoked tri tip.

  • Medium- 135°F to 145°F (still ok with plenty of moisture left)
A smoked tri tip cooked to medium doneness sliced on a cutting board

An example of a smoked tri tip to medium doneness.

If you like your meat well done you can go higher than these temperatures, just know that the tri tip will become pretty dry if you go too much above this temp range.

 

A 3lb smoked tri tip resting on a cutting board

The searing step at the end turns a drab-looking tri tip into something like this. (Fat cap left on.)

You might have noticed that there are thicker and thinner sections of the tri tip. The best way to combat the natural uneven doneness is to move the thinner part to the side of your smoker that is less hot than other spots.

I like to put a meat probe in both the thicker and thinner sections of the tri tip to make sure I’m not overcooking the thinner part.

Tracking the thick and thin portions of a tri tip on a cloud-connected smart meat thermometer

Notice the temperature discrepancies between the thin part (on the left) and the thick part (middle reading) of the tri tip.

Trimming a Tri Tip: To Trim or Not to Trim

Do you need to trim your tri tip before smoking? Some people prefer leaving the excess fat on, but there are a few things you should consider if you go this route.

The excess fat I’m referring to is the thick fat cap that is left on the tri tip at some grocery stores.

Tri tip on a cutting board with the fat side up

A tri tip with its fat cap intact.

Since you’re cooking at such low temperatures for a relatively short amount of time (in low-and-slow bbq terms), there will be very little rendering of the fat, basting the meat, and adding flavor.

It can act as a heat shield which is beneficial in some smoking set-ups, but it also blocks the smoke to that side of the meat.

Smoked tri tip sliced with its fat cap left on and still clearly prominent after smoking

The fat cap is still there after smoking and unless you’re a fat fan, that’s coming off.

What else should you trim off a tri tip before smoking? Well, there’s the whitish membrane-looking silver skin and little pockets of fat here and there.

An untrimmed tri tip roast on a cutting board

Trim off what you can, I like to get rid of the silver skin that’s on the right side of the tri tip in the picture.

A trimmed tri tip on a cutting board

You don’t need to get too carried away by trimming too much.

Be careful when dealing with the silverskin, it’s slippery and you can cut yourself.

Closeup image of sliverskin and fat on the outside of a raw beef tri tip before trimming

Silverskin and fat such as this should be trimmed off before smoking.

I like to get under the silverskin with a knife, being careful not to cut into the meat too much.

Trimming off the silver skin on a tri tip by using a knife and a paper towel to hold on to the silverskin

Once you’re under the silverskin grab the excess with a paper towel and use it to cut underneath.

Grab the flap of silverskin you cut underneath with a paper towel and stretch it away from the meat, using it as a guide for the knife to cut the rest away.

Tri tip end with the piece of trimmed silverskin and fat next to it

Now that you’ve got your tri tip trimmed up, let’s look at your seasoning options.

Smoked Tri Tip Rub

What kind of dry rub should you use on your tri tip?

Pretty much anything goes, although a basic rub of salt, pepper, garlic, and onion powder is a winning combination.

A tri tip with a basic rub applied on the outside

Nothing too fancy, salt, pepper, and whatever else you like.

Although there is no right or wrong rub, here’s one that works well with tri tip:

  • 2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
  • 1 tablespoon Garlic Powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon Black Pepper
  • 1/4 tablespoon Onion Powder

Slicing a Tri Tip

When you look at a tri tip you can see that the muscle fibers go in two different directions.

The key to tender tri tip is slicing it against the grain to break up these muscle fibers.

Image showing the two distinctive muscle fiber patterns on a tri tip and the direction you should cut the tri tip with your knife

You will need to cut against the grain at a 45 degree angle on your tri tip in two different directions. The red slashes signify your knife’s cutting angle.

Without going against the grain, you’re leaving the long muscle fibers intact, and your teeth, not the knife, will be the one to break them up.

Going against the grain makes a world of difference when it comes to the texture and tenderness of the meat.

What’s the Best Wood to Smoke Tri Tip?

What kind of wood works best for smoking tri tip? Oak and mesquite are two woods that pair well with the beefiness of tri tip and give it a nice smoke flavor.

I use mesquite lump charcoal with chunks of oak and that combo works well with the beefy flavor of the tri tip.

But really, you can use any type of smoking wood you prefer. If I only have apple or cherry wood sitting around the house I’ll use those as well, it still tastes great.

How much wood should you use to smoke your tri tip?

A good guide to go by would be to use a fist-size amount of wood chips or chunks if you want a nice, but not overpowering, smoke flavor.

A smoked tri tip with a corner cut off revealing meat with a very thick smoke ring

I might’ve gotten carried away on this one, definitely more than two fists’ worth.

Use the equivalent of two fists of wood chips or chunks if you really like smoke on your meat.

How to Smoke Tri Tip on Different Grills

No matter what you use to smoke tri tip, the temperature range of between 225 °F to 275°F remains the same.

If you’re using a conventional wood smoker or a pellet smoker, then set it up for this temperature range and track it with a meat probe.

You can smoke a tri tip on a basic kettle-style charcoal grill as well by using an indirect, two-zone fire.

Smoking a tri tip on a Weber kettle style grill using a two zone fire to smoke it indirectly

Smoking a tri tip on a Weber kettle-style grill using a two-zone fire to smoke it indirectly.

  • To set up a two-zone fire, prepare a chimney starter with charcoal and pour it on one side of the grill bottom when it’s just starting to turn white on the tips.
  • Then add some wood chips around the edge of the charcoal so they start to smoke.
  • Place your tri tip as far away from the fire with the thickest part closest to the fire.
  • Track the temperature of your grill with an ambient temperature probe and the temperature of the tri tip at the spot closest to the fire. If the temperature of your grill goes higher than 275°F, move the lid a little off to the side, allowing some heat to escape.
  • Cover the grill. Flip the tri tip over with the other side closest to the fire at around the thirty-minute mark.
  • Pull the tri tip off when it reaches your desired temp. An internal temp of 128 to 130°F is a good temp.
  • Sear the outside if you want on the grill or in a cast iron skillet.
  • Let your tri tip rest for 10 to 15 minutes while tented with aluminum foil.
  • Slice across the grain and serve.

A smoked tri tip on a weber kettle grill

Can you smoke tri tip on a gas grill?

Yes, the results won’t be quite the same as real wood, but you can make a decent version of smoked tri tip on a gas grill.

Set up your gas grill with a burner on high on just one side. Place a thermometer probe on the opposite side to track the temperature of your grill.

The high heat is for the wood chip packet in the next step. Don’t worry, you’ll turn the heat down for smoking.

Setting up a gas grill for indirect smoking with a wireless thermometer tracking the grill's temperature

Notice the knobs turned to high on one side of the grill. You’ll be putting your tri tip on the cool side by the temperature probe.

Place an envelope-sized aluminum foil packet with wood chips over the hot side to create smoke.

An aluminum foil wood chip packet for smoking on a gas grill

An aluminum foil wood chip packet for smoking on a gas grill.

Once you’ve got good smoke from the wood chip packet, turn the temperature knob to low on that side and add your tri tip to the opposite, cooler side.

Smoke the tri tip at the 225 °F to 275°F temperature range until an internal temp of 125 to 130°F is reached. Sear the outside over burners set to high heat.

Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes and serve.

How Long to Smoke Tri Tip

The amount of time a tri tip takes to smoke depends on its size and the temperature at which you smoke it.

You can smoke a tri tip with great results anywhere from the 225 °F to 275°F range, just remember that the lower you go, the longer it’ll take to cook.

Time and temperature graph of a smoke tri tip

Time and temperature graph of a 2lb tri tip at a smoking temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

It also depends on how much smoke you want it to absorb and your desired internal temperature, or doneness at the end.

That is why following cooking time guidance isn’t always the best method to monitor your smoked meat.

Yes, you can use it as a rough guide to let you know if you’re in the ballpark, but nothing trumps an accurate dual-probe thermometer.

Set one probe up to monitor your smoking chamber’s ambient temperature and one (or more if you’ve got more)  meat probe to track your meat’s temperature.

Without thermometer probes tracking the temperature of both your smoker and the internal temperature of your tri tip roast, you’re flying blind.

Time and temperature graph of a smoked two pound tri tip

Another 2lb tri tip taking around 50 minutes to reach an internal temperature of 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Notice the temperature discrepancies between the thick and thin parts of the tri tip.

A 2lb tri tip smoked at a chamber temperature of between 250 to 260°F can take around 50 minutes to reach an internal temperature between 128 and 132°F.

A little larger, 2.5lb tri tip that is smoked at a chamber temperature of  225°F can take 2 hrs or longer to reach an internal temperature of 128°F.

Time and temperature graph of a 2.5lb smoked tri tip reaching an internal temp of 127 degrees after 2 hours and 7 minutes

Time and temperature graph of a 2.5lb smoked tri tip reaching an internal temp of 127 degrees after 2 hours and 7 minutes.

The moral of this story? The lower the temp, the longer the cook.

These are the results I have on my smoker, a Weber Smokey Mountain 22″ model.

Your results may vary and that’s why you should always track your meat with a thermometer.

If you have a larger tri tip roast weighing closer to 3lbs or more, I would suggest cooking it at a higher pit temperature, somewhere between 250 and 275°F, otherwise, you’ll be looking at a cook time of 3 hrs or more.

Is longer a bad thing? Not necessarily, the added time will add extra smoke, but you risk the outer portion of your meat drying out as well.

A tri tip that was smoked for 2hrs with a very prominent smoke ring

Tri Tip smoked for 2 hours with a lot of smoke applied to contribute to the red smoke ring.

Smoked Tri Tip Roast on a cutting board

Smoked Tri Tip Recipe

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: Smoked Tri Tip
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Resting time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Servings: 4 people
Calories: 366kcal
Cost: $10
You can smoke a tri tip roast in about 1 to 2 hours using indirect heat and some wood chips. Here's how.
Print Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 2lb Beef Tri Tip Roast
  • 2 tablespoons Kosher Salt
  • 1 tablespoon Garlic Powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon Black Pepper
  • 1/4 tablespoon Onion Powder

Instructions

  • Preheat your grill or smoker to anywhere between 225 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember, the lower the temp, the longer the smoke.
  • Set up your meat thermometer by your grill or smoker with one probe set up to track your smoking chamber temperature.
  • Trim the tri tip of any extra fat and season the tri tip with all of the seasonings.
  • Before adding tri tip to the grill or smoker, add desired amount of wood chips or chunks to the fire for smoking. If using gas grill, use an aluminum foil wood chip packet for smoking.
  • Place your tri tip on your smoker or grill as far from the heat as you can. Smoke it at a temperature anywhere between 225 and 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Smoke your tri tip until it reaches your desired doneness. 128 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit is a perfect medium-rare. Sear the outside on both sides over high heat for one to two minutes.
  • Tent the tri tip with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.
  • Slice across the grain and serve.

Nutrition

Serving: 8oz | Calories: 366kcal | Carbohydrates: 2g | Protein: 47g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 6g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 9g | Cholesterol: 147mg | Sodium: 3610mg | Potassium: 767mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 4IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 63mg | Iron: 4mg

 

What is Tri Tip?

A beef tri tip is a triangular piece of meat that is located at the angle between a steer’s flank and its hindlimb.

The best diagram I’ve seen of where tri tip is located exactly is in this PowerPoint presentation from Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

Tri tip is the tensor fasciae latae muscle that flexes the hip joint of the steer.

 

Butcher's diagram of different cuts of beef with the location of the Tri Tip cut highlighted in red

When the steer is processed at the meatpacking facility they are hoisted onto overhead rails and suspended by their hindlimbs.

During this suspension, there is an extreme rotation of the tensor fascia lata (tri tip) muscle that is spread through the stretched mass of the sirloin.

That’s why tri tip is considered part of the bottom sirloin.