Cocoa Spice Rubbed Tri Tip

Deliciously rich and bold, this cocoa spice rub is perfect with a smoky grilled tri tip. Whether using a gas grill, charcoal grill or hard wood fire, your friends and family will enjoy every bite. 

Tri tip is a cut of beef that shows up time and again on our dinner plate at home or at the campground. But what is tri tip? Many people in America have not heard of it, let alone tasted it. A small central California town has made this 3 to 4 pound triangular roast famous, let me tell you the story:

The vaquero or cowboys of old California drove cattle all along the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria hills. At night, oak fires were built and the cowboys threaded long metal spears with cuts of top block beef. Simple seasonings like salt, pepper and dried herbs were used to season those cuts. That meat threaded spear and over the fire cooking method was the start of “authentic Santa Maria style BBQ.” However this is where the food history of the Santa Maria style bbq goes a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Today many consider the “traditional Santa Maria style BBQ” beef cut to be tri tip and not top block.

The Famous Cut

In the 1950s, a butcher and meat manager named Bob Schultz worked at grocery store in Santa Maria, California. One day after looking at a side of beef he decided to test his butchering skills. He carefully separated the triangle shaped cut of meat from the underside of the sirloin section of that beef side. Although the cut, tri tip was not a new discovery, it was mainly used in ground beef or for stew meat. But what Bob did next is what put this cut on the bbq map.

He took that beef tri tip, seasoned it simply and cooked it over a very hot oak fire. After it had come off the grill and rested he sliced it against the grain to ensure tenderness. Well, history was made and that’s why tri tip is considered California’s brisket of the bbq. It also cemented the two very different styles of cooking “traditional vs authentic Santa Maria style bbq.”

But the feud continues still to this day. The Santa Maria Elks Lodge, famous for its BBQ would not dream to cook tri tip. Those over the fire masters cook Santa Maria Style BBQ the authentic way, on steel rods, over a hot fire and with top block. But the historic Cold Springs Tavern in California serves up tri tip in their famous sandwiches. Bikers, motorists, Hollywood elite and chefs from all over the world find themselves sitting under the oak trees smelling the sweet oak fire and enjoying that tender meat. I grew up not too far from Santa Maria, California and I have had my fill of both top block and tri tip through the years; I choose tri tip time and time again.

Cocoa and Smoke

Cocoa powder results from the cocoa bean being harvested, fermented, dried, roasted, ground, and blended. It’s one of the most fascinating processes to watch and if you are ever in Hawaii I suggest visiting Oahu and going to Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate where you can learn about the cocoa growing and harvesting process along with delicious tastes at the end of your tour.

When cocoa beans are roasted, they develop certain flavors, the same happens when beef cooks over a wood fire. As the fat in beef heats and melts then drips onto the hot wood whiffs of smoke wrap the beef with its flavors. Cocoa powder, cumin, chili powder and black pepper all release their natural oils when heated. With the smoke and low heat in my cooking method all of those flavors have time to surround and flavor the beef.

Apply the cocoa spice rub to the tri tip 24 hours before cooking it. This gives the meat a chance to absorb all the flavors deep into its tissue. Another flavor addition should made by dusting the beef lightly with the spice rub just before cooking. This will create a beautiful bark on the outside of the tri tip. Just as pit masters achieve with brisket when it’s cooked with very low heat for long periods of time.

Low and Slow

The key to getting that bark and developing all those flavors will be using an indirect cooking method. If the only bbq you have is a gas or propane, not to worry. Just make up a few foil packets filled with soaked wood chips to infuse the smoke flavor. If you are using hard wood or lump charcoal, maintain heat at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire cooking time.

You will keep the hot fire on one side of your grill and the tri tip on the cool side for the entire cook time. If your bbq lid has vent holes, position them over the beef to help draw that smoke over and around the tri tip.  Cook the tri tip for 45 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches medium-rare or 130 degrees Fahrenheit. I suggest using this thermometer from Thermoworks to ensure the correct temperature.

When the tri tip is at temperature, remove from the grill, place on a platter to rest for 20 minutes. A rich mahogany colored bark will have developed all you have to do is slice against the grain and enjoy. Congratulations, you have achieved tri tip grilling greatness. Follow the image below on how to slice this cut, it has two distinct grains that run through it and you will want to slice it for maximum tenderness.

Cocoa Spice Rubbed Tri Tip
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  1. Place the tri tip in a rimmed baking sheet or pan. Take 2 tablespoons of the Cocoa Spice Rub and sprinkle it over the tri tip’s surface. Wrap with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator up to 24 hours.
  2. Remove the tri tip from the refrigerator sprinkle and additional 1 to 2 tablespoons of the Cocoa Spice Rub over all the surface. Allow the tri tip to rest and come to room temp for an hour.
  3. If you are using hard wood light your fire and have it burn down where only coals remain move all the hot coals to one side of the grill. If you are using lump charcoal, over fill a charcoal chimney and light it. Turn out the coals to one side of the grill when there is a deep red glow and white ash on the lump charcoal. If you are using a gas grill, heat all the burners for 15 minutes then if you have a 4 burner grill turn off the outer left two flames. If you have a three burner grill turn off the outer left grill. Maintain a temperature of 350 degrees F.
  4. Once your grill has come to temp place the grill grate over the fire and allow it to heat for 5 minutes. Using a grill scraper clean and oil the grill grates.
  5. Place the tri tip on the side of the cool side of the grill, the indirect side. Cover with the grill lid and cook until the internal temperature is 130 degrees F. Roughly 45 minutes cook time.

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