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Tri Tip Vs Brisket – What’s the Difference? Which to Choose and Why?

Tri tip and brisket are large, very popular cuts of beef for BBQ and smoking, that produce delicious dishes and will impress any guests lucky enough for you to cook for. Learn about each, their differences, and how to choose the right one.

Last Updated: February 26, 2021

Photos of smoked or grilled tri tip and brisket side by side

If you’ve come to this page, it’s because you’ve got big meat on your mind. You’ve decided to tackle one of the big daddies of smoking. Excellent decision!

But, when it comes down to try tip vs brisket, how will you decide which is right for you, your smoker, and your table? We’re going to sort that out here and now.

This comprehensive comparison will tell you all you need to know about the differences between two legendary cuts of beef. You’ll learn about sizes, fat content, where the cuts come from, and other names they go by. Plus, we’ll tell you how to cook them and get you started with three incredible recipes for each cut.

Stay with me – like the cuts themselves, this is going to be epic.

Comparison Table

 Tri TipBrisket
SizeMedium to largeVery large
Meat contentVery meatyVery meaty
Fat contentLean with moderate marbling and possibly a fat capLean with a fat cap
Average weight (rack)2.5 pounds12 pounds
Servings per rack524
Location
on pig
Bottom sirloin sub primal, near the rear of the cowBrisket primal at the chest of the cow

Tri Tip

Raw tri tip on a white square shaped bowl

“People across North America are discovering that tri tip is a mouth-watering cross between a steak and a roast that’s perfect for grilling. It’s even been hailed as ‘poor man’s prime rib.’” – Steven Raichlen

This is one of those rare meat cuts (as in uncommon, not seared on the outside and red in the middle) whose origins we can pinpoint with high accuracy. Apparently, a butcher at a Southern California grocery store decided to try and roast a piece of meat cut from the sirloin, an area usually destined for the meat grinder. The year was 1952 – probably.

While likely not the first person to cook a tri tip, Bob is generally credited as the first person to bring it to the masses. (As with all cuts, others lay claim to that honor, as well, of course.) Having said that, tri tip has never joined the top ranks of the most popular cuts of beef. It remains popular in SoCal, though, and is often smoked over red oak and served with salsa and garlic bread.

The tri tip’s other names are: Newport steak, Triangle steak, Bottom sirloin butt, the California cut, and Santa Maria steak from its purported place of origin in Santa Maria, California.

Tri tip is very tender and easy to chew, but only if you don’t overcook it and do slice it the right way. Slicing it thin and against the grain yields melt-in-your-mouth morsels worthy of the best deli sandwich. We’ll talk more about slicing tri tip later.

Where on the Cow does Tri Tip Come From?

Diagram showing the sirloin primal on a cow

The tri tip is cut from the bottom sirloin, a sub-primal section of the larger sirloin primal. The sirloin is located near the back end of the cow, just in front of the round primal (aka the rear of the steer).

It’s roughly triangular in shape, sometimes looking like a boomerang that overdid it during the holidays and sometimes like a pudgy arrowhead.

Typically, there is moderate to heavy marbling running towards one point. However, the grain strangely runs in two different directions.

How Much Meat and Fat does Tri Tip Contain?

Despite all the marbling, tri tip is classified as a lean cut of beef. An untrimmed tri tip comes with a fat cap, but you’ll probably want to remove that, anyway. There is a lot of meat on your cooked tri tip and no bone.

Nutritional Information per 4 oz (1/4 pound)

NutritionTotal Amount% Daily Value (based
on 2000 calories/day)
Calories23912%
Total Fat12.5g19%
Cholesterol95mg32%
Sodium60mg3%
Protein29g
Calcium1.5%
Iron4.3mg10.5%

Portion Size: How Much Tri Tip Per Person?

Because it’s lean, tri tip is reasonably low in calories. How much you serve to each person, though, will depend on how it’s served. For example, if you’re slicing it thin for a sandwich on thick, carb-tastic bread, you might want to keep it down to 3 – 6 ounces. If you’re serving it cut into steaks, 8 ounces is a safe bet.

How to Prepare Tri Tip for Grilling or Smoking

As mentioned earlier, an untrimmed tri tip should have its fat cap carefully sliced off. However, this cut is usually bought pre-trimmed leaving you with nothing to do but season as desired. A tri tip benefits enormously from a simple rub of household spices like salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano. It’s also ideal for marinading overnight, even in plain old olive oil.

A few more words on that fat cap: the reason for removing it is that the rendering fat will drip down into your grill and cause potentially catastrophic flare-ups.

But, if you’re using a smoker and you’ve got a drip pan, you could certainly leave it on, if you like, for extra flavor and moisture. Just be sure to place the meat on the grate with the fat side facing up and away from the heat source to allow better smoke penetration and even cooking.

How to Cook Tri Tip

Sliced tri tip surrounding a bowl of chimichurri

Tri tip is an unusual cut in that you have several options in terms of cooking style.

Thanks to its size, you can smoke tri tip low ’n’ slow until it’s nice and tender; this is the preferred method for many chefs. Your best bet is to set your smoker between 225F and 250F and smoke for about 30 minutes per pound. Aim for medium-rare at the thickest point of the cut. You’ll end up with something more like medium at the thin spots, but it’s still delicious. If you can get your hands on red oak, that’s the most “authentic” choice, but any oak will do.

There’s no need to wrap your tri tip during the smoke session, but many chefs choose to wrap theirs in foil while it rests. This allows the juices a chance to settle down, and you’ll have less leakage when it’s time to carve.

Aim for rare to medium-rare for the best tenderness and taste. That means an internal target temperature of 135F to 140F.

On the other hand, you could also give it a sear, like a steak, for a few minutes and then roast it over indirect heat until it’s done. You can even spit roast it on a rotisserie. (That’s how the “first” tri tip was prepared.) Have fun experimenting!

Brisket

Raw brisket being seasoned with salt and pepper

“To me, brisket is that one thing that if you cook it right… it’s delicious. But if you cook it wrong… it can be pretty bad.” – Malcolm Reed

No word of a lie, brisket is not a beginner’s cut. But, with patience, perseverance, and a few tips from someone who’s been there, you can do this.

Brisket has a long history and is enjoyed around much of the world. It is synonymous with Jewish cuisine, and it was brought to North America by European migrants. Sometime around the 1950s, it began its evolution into the poster cut for Texas-style barbecue.

Unlike many other cuts, brisket is rarely displayed under another name. You might find the brisket sold as two pieces, however – the flat and the point or deckle point. Combined, they’re sometimes called a “packer” cut. Interestingly, corned beef and pastrami are both made with cured brisket.

Brisket is a tough cut, and as such, was traditionally inexpensive. In fact, it was often discarded. Eventually, people caught on that it’s tender and delicious when cooked low and slow. Despite its recent popularity, it’s still an economical cut.

Where on the Cow does Brisket Come From?

Diagram showing the brisket primal on a cow

This enormous cut of beef comes from the breast of the cow, or what you might call the pecs. Specifically, it’s located behind the foreshank and beneath the first five ribs. Despite that, brisket never comes with any bone attached.

Its shape is best described as a slab – it really doesn’t conform to any recognizable geometric shape. If you find one with the fat cap, or deckle, attached, you’ll note that one face of the brisket is almost entirely covered with a sheet of fat.

How Much Meat and Fat does Brisket Contain?

Don’t let the big, fatty deckle fool you – a brisket is a lean cut of meat. The marbling is slight to moderate, and once you’ve cut away some of the deckle (more on that later), you’ll find you’ve got mostly meat left in your hands.

Nutritional Information per 4 oz (1/4 pound)

NutritionTotal Amount% Daily Value (based
on 2000 calories/day)
Calories32816.5%
Total Fat21g33%
Cholesterol120mg40%
Sodium55mg2%
Protein32g
Calcium1%
Iron15%

Portion Size: How Much Brisket Per Person?

To serve brisket, you’ll slice it pretty thin and stack it up. It’s not entirely unlike bacon, really. As such, it’s easy to chow down on more brisket than is really necessary. You’ll have to gauge your crowd, but figure on 6 to 8 ounces per guest.

How to Prepare Brisket for Grilling or Smoking

First off, let’s clarify something about that header up there: you can’t “grill” a brisket because it’s too darn huge. But, you can smoke it on a grill that’s set up for smoking. Moving on.

Leave the deckle in place for the flavor and moisture, but do trim off the excess around the edges. If the deckle is overly thick, slice it down to 1/4 inch all the way across. You’ll want a sharp knife and a steady hand, but the extra work will allow the brisket to cook evenly.

You should always apply at least a dry rub of salt and pepper all over your brisket, making sure to massage it into all the crevices. You should let it sit for at least an hour to allow the rub to absorb into the meat. If you can leave it longer, even better – but make sure to put it in the fridge to keep cool.

For a marinade, seal the brisket in a bag or container with your solution and keep it in the fridge for up to 24 hours. Marinading a brisket is a common way to ensure a tender and tasty end product.

Remove your brisket from the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature before you place it in the smoker. A cold brisket will lower the ambient temperature inside the smoker and force your smoker to work extra hard to compensate.

How to Cook Brisket

Looking at the sliced end of a halved, smoked brisket being held with white nitrile gloves.

The only way to cook a brisket is low ’n’ slow. How low? Your target range should be 225F to 250F. How slow? That will depend on the size of the cut and other factors. A good estimate is 1 hour per pound. That means an average brisket could easily take 12 hours to smoke. Be sure to take that into account when you’re planning dinner.

You can use any hardwood you like, really, but the traditional choices are hickory, oak, and mesquite. But, since smoking and experimenting go hand-in-hand, there’s no harm in mixing it up with cherry (the color it gives to bark is gorgeous), apple, or maple. The sweeter, lighter tastes match nicely with similarly flavored rubs.

Once your smoker is up to temperature, place your brisket on the grate with the deckle facing up. Some chefs like to spritz the brisket with fluid on occasion, usually apple cider vinegar.

At some point, you’ll come face to face with “the stall.” We won’t go into detail, but it’s an anxiety-inducing period during which the temperature inside the brisket will plateau and stubbornly refuse to climb. It may last for several hours, but it will pass. Many people will remove the brisket and wrap it in foil or butcher paper to help beat the stall.

Once finished to an internal temperature of 195F, remove the brisket from the smoker and let it rest for 2 to 4 hours, depending on size.

Tri Tip Vs Brisket

Now that we’ve discussed each cut individually, it’s time for them to go head to head. Or, tip to point.

Cooking Methods – Is One Easier to Cook than the Other?

This one isn’t even a contest; tri tip is far easier to cook than brisket. Both can be a bit dodgy in that they’re tough when done wrong. Tri tip is a bit more forgiving thanks to the extra marbling, though. Also, because of its size, you’ll spend far less time tending to it. Plus, tri tip requires less prep and less resting.

Is One Better for Smoking Than the Other?

We’ve established that tri tip is easier to smoke than brisket. However, to cook a delicious brisket is the ultimate goal of many backyard chefs. It’s certainly a more intense smoking experience, and it takes time and care. For that reason, it can be especially rewarding.

By the same token, though, it can tear your soul out if a full day of smoking yields an inedible hunk of dried-up cow chest. (In my head, I can hear Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride saying, “Fezzik, listen! Do you hear? That is the sound of ultimate suffering.”)

So, the answer depends on your definition of “better.” It certainly seems that more people attempt a brisket, but that may be partially due to its familiarity.

Difference in Tenderness

Before cooking a brisket low ’n’ slow, it’s incredibly tough and chewy. Tri tip is inherently more tender, but it’s not up there with a top sirloin. You’d never guess they could both be rendered succulent and delicious with just heat and time.

While both will come out tender if done right, tri tip gets the edge in this category.

Which is More Flavorful?

Both brisket and tri tip possess a strong, naturally beefy flavor. It’s perhaps a bit stronger in the brisket, but it’s the way brisket cooks that makes it the standout in the taste category. If you succeed in imparting a dark and delicious bark, there’s just nothing else quite like it. In an ideal world, where both cuts turn out perfect, brisket is the flavor champion.

Which is USUALLY bigger?

Although both cuts are often sold pre-divided – briskets are frequently divided into two pieces, and tri tip may end up as multiple steaks – looking at the whole cuts, both are relatively large.

But, there’s really no contest here. A brisket may weigh as much as 20 pounds and average around 12. An average tri tip is about 2 pounds, though an untrimmed beast might make 5 pounds.

Which is Better – Tri Tip or Brisket?

This isn’t an easy choice; both cuts have a lot going for them, and each has its unique pros and cons.

The tri tip is probably better for a beginner, simply based on the ease of preparation and cooking, and the highly satisfactory results. It’s cost-effective, too, especially compared to most steaks. On a per pound basis, it’s more expensive than brisket, but they’re much smaller in size, so your bill will be correspondingly smaller, too.

But, the grilling and smoking journey is one of constant self-improvement. Smoking a killer brisket is a noble pursuit, one almost all of us in the hobby (or profession) want to take on. It’s like chasing the Holy Grail, only without clunky armor or killer rabbits.

Considering the superior taste, the lower cost per serving, and the sheer pride that accompanies it, the brisket takes the crown in this beefy battle royale.

When Would You Pick One Over the Other

If you’re confident with your ability to deliver a yummy brisket, it should always be your choice for a big crowd. Especially one that’s hard to impress. Not only does it look great, but it’s also a more efficient choice for feeding a lot of people thanks to its size.

Tri tip delivers a similar experience as brisket, but you can have it done and ready in a fraction of the time. If you don’t have a few days to plan, prepare, and smoke a brisket, consider tri tip as an expedient alternative.

Also, tri tip makes a lot of sense if you’re only feeding a few people. With a brisket, you’ll probably have leftovers for days if you’ve got less than a dozen people over. (Not that that’s entirely a bad thing.)

3 Best Recipes for Tri Tip from Around the Web

Trip tip, chips and veg as a serving platter

Who’s ready to try some Tri Tip? There are tons of recipes around the web, and these are 3 of the very finest.

Dry Rubbed and Smoked Tri Tip

This recipe takes a non-traditional approach to the rub and the smoke. That’s ok, though – part of the fun of grilling and smoking is trying new things. For example, the rub includes a dash of brown sugar and a small amount of espresso powder. Don’t worry, though; neither is in large enough quantity to dominate your tastebuds. (Nor will it taste like coffee. Espresso adds richness to everything it touches, but not a distinct java flavor.)

Interestingly, this recipe’s creator chose cherry wood for smoking instead of the usual oak or even hickory. It’s the perfect complement to the rich espresso and the sweet brown sugar. The crust of your tri tip should be a gorgeous dark mahogany and the taste will be deep and delicious with balanced sweetness, bitterness, and savory.

Recipes like this are what smoking is all about – give it a click and give it a go:

Brazilian Smoked Tri Tip

Ready for a flavor blast? The marinade blends sweet and salty and citrus into one exciting soak. There’s also a rub with plenty of herbs and spices, including paprika, nutmeg, and cumin. Your tastebuds won’t know what hit them. Have your tin foil standing by for a wrapped rest to lock in the juices and all that incredible flavor. This one is going to taste like summer, so we recommend having a cooler of fine Brazilian cerveja – or at least blonde lagers – close at hand.

Don’t be alarmed when you click on this recipe and see it calls for a Traeger pellet grill. Yes, Traegers are fantastic, but they aren’t the only smoker out there. You can easily use any smoker you want for this tri tip; just ignore where it says to use the “Smoke” setting and set your smoker to 225F. It’ll cook faster than the recipe suggests, so keep an eye on your internal temperature to avoid overcooking.

Santa Maria Style Tri Tip

Let’s finish where it all began. This recipe starts with a simple, classic California rub of garlic, salt, and pepper and adds in a little bit of cayenne heat. It’s a dry rub, and there’s no marinade, so it’s very simple to prepare. Simple doesn’t mean bland, though – there will be flavour to spare after a good massage (for the tri tip, not you) and some time to rest and let the spices penetrate the meat.

You won’t need a smoker for this recipe, but you will need to set up a two-zone cook – one side for searing and one for roasting to perfection at about 275F. The recipe doesn’t call for any smoke beyond what your charcoal generates. But, if you’ve got some oak chips or chunks, why not add them and kick this up a notch?

Can’t take it any longer? Go get the full recipe here, now:

3 Best Recipes for Brisket from Around the Web

Brisket smoking on a grill

You might think there’s not much variety when it comes to smoking a brisket. Here are 3 recipes to prove you wrong.

Texas-Style Smoked Brisket

Here is the essence of brisket, stripped down to the basics. Salt, pepper, moderate hardwood smoke: that’s all you need to create a brisket masterpiece in which the magnificent flavor of the beef speaks for itself. Well, that and a lot of patience. What you don’t need is any foil or paper – it’s Texas-style, but there’s no Texas Crutch.

This recipe is a great introduction to smoking brisket thanks to its simplicity. It allows you to focus on the meat and control the temperature in your smoker over an entire day. Even if you’re quite comfortable with smoking, you’ll love this “all about that beef” recipe.

Ready to begin at the beginning? Start your brisket adventure here:

Yeah, I lived in Texas, Smoked Brisket

Yes, the name is great, but that’s not why it’s in this article. It’s here because of the mouth-watering blend of spices in the rub. Sure, there’s S&P, but also livelier choices like cayenne and cumin. There’s some brown sugar, too, to help get that bark that’s the hallmark of a great brisket. The brains behind this recipe blended his woods but favors mesquite and pecan, both excellent Texas/Southern BBQ choices.

Have your butcher paper or foil ready because you’ll finish with a wrap to hold in that moisture. You should end up with a fabulous brisket that gets creative with seasonings without straying too far from the classic tastes. It’s a great jumping off point for creating your own signature rub by messing with each ingredient’s quantities in the recipe.

For an excellent introduction to rubs, this one is highly recommended:

Smoked Brisket with Citrus Marinade

Some beef was just born for a marinade. Brisket is one of those cuts. You can add so much exciting flavor to your brisket by allowing it to soak at least overnight, if not longer. A marinade also helps to tenderize this tough lump of meat. And, best of all, it’s really easy to do.

The marinade in this recipe uses lemon and lime juice for a zesty taste. There’s a good bit of seasoning in it, too, so expect a complex profile that rewards your tastebuds for your efforts. Also included is a basic rub to add even more incredible taste. The prep level is a bit higher in this recipe than in the others, but it’s still relatively minimal. What’s not minimal is the end result – this will be a decidedly different brisket sure to be a hit at your home.

Final Thoughts

See? Told you it would be epic. Smoking large cuts of beef can be a lot of fun and immensely satisfying – if you know how to do it right. Well, guess what? Now you do. And your barbecuing world just got a little bigger, which is never a bad thing. Which one are you going to try first?

I truly appreciate you choosing this as your source for barbecue knowledge; hopefully, all the questions you came seeking answers for have been addressed. If not, drop a line and I’ll be happy to respond. I’m also happy when you share my articles with your friends and family, and join the community on social media. BBQ is for sharing!

Now, if you came here seeking knowledge on tri tip and brisket, you likely have other smoking and grilling questions. I invite you to browse the site for a while – you never know what you’ll turn up.

Thanks for reading – now go light that grill!

Hi, I’m Jim! I’ve been grilling for nearly 20 years over charcoal, wood, and gas. Now I’m happy to share my experience and discoveries with you.

When I’m not writing about barbecue, I’m usually writing about food anyway, at a food marketing agency. Aside from my family and the perfect steak, my passions include travel and all things Disney.

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