ATLANTA — East of the Rockies, the tri-tip roast is like the Sasquatch of meat.
I have asked for tri-tip in grocery stores from Chicago to Tampa, Fla., only to be met with the pleasant stare that comes when the inherently helpful are completely baffled. I have tried using different names for the roast, which looks like a thick, lopsided boomerang laced with fat. Maybe you have a bottom sirloin butt? A sirloin tip roast? A triangle roast?
Like a frustrated Bigfoot hunter, I got close once at an Atlanta Whole Foods. “We had some last week,” the guy behind the counter said, “but they went fast.”
This has thrown a serious curve to my meat game. Back in Northern California, where my tri-tip courtship began, you couldn’t swing a piece of red oak without hitting one.
Most Read Life Stories
The tri-tip roast, beefy and juicy beyond its price, which rarely tops $8 a pound, is California patio food made for grilling. Seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, cooked over red oak in a style that has come to be called Santa Maria barbecue and sliced against the grain, tri-tip is essential to Central California biker bar sandwiches and community fundraisers.
Early in my cooking career, the tri-tip was a gateway meat, a path beyond a predicable rotation of strip steaks and chuck roasts. Eventually, I added flank, flat irons and hangers, learning a few simple techniques with rubs, liquid and heat that coaxed tenderness from ornery cuts. I even jumped on the skirt-steak train and, like other fans, cursed the fajita for making what was once an obscure and inexpensive cut more than $20 a pound at some stores.
Meat cuts remain a confusing test in the grocery store. Who but the most dedicated can wade through a case filled with Scotch tenders, sirloin caps and beef loin roasts? Only fish, with its hundreds of species and constantly changing sustainability rules, is more vexing.
Regional variations don’t make things any easier. In the East, tri-tip sometimes shows up as a Newport steak. A certain cut of pork is called a shoulder in the South but a Boston butt in other parts of the country. And is it just a butt in Boston?
“Even for me, who knows the whole animal from top to bottom, it can be confusing,” said Nate Appleman, a chef who worked in New York and Northern California and who recently took over as culinary manager for the Chipotle chain.
Although many argue that the nation’s food supply suffers from too much uniformity, meat is an area where we could use a little more. A piece of chuck might be called a pot roast in a cookbook, a seven-bone roast at the store and braised shoulder on a restaurant menu.
As a result, cooks and diners default to what they know.
“We are still stuck in the strip-steak world,” said Laura Landoll, a spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “There are a lot of cuts and no one understands how best to prepare them, so they tend to buy the same three to four cuts.”
To try to remedy the problem (and increase sales), the mainstream meat industry has spent several years promoting new cuts with simple names like the flat iron or the Denver while it pondered ways to improve naming conventions across the board. They tested muscle groups to find new cuts, conducted focus groups and issued consumer surveys.
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed the National Pork Board and the Beef Checkoff Program, both trade groups, to update the industry guide to meat names, the Uniform Retail Meat Identification Standards. The voluntary meat-naming system began in 1973 as a way to help baffled carnivores.
It was last updated in 2005, but this time around the changes are much more sweeping. The idea is to simplify the labels on 350 cuts of beef and pork so consumers will see the same name everywhere in the country. So far, the labels haven’t been widely adopted, but they should eventually show up in about 85 percent of grocery stores.
The new labels lead off with a common name for a cut, then offer the characteristics of that cut, such as which animal and which part of that animal it came from. If you are looking for the most popular retail steak, the label will read porterhouse steak followed by a line saying “beef, loin, bone in.” A third line offers the most minimal cooking tips, like “grill for best results.”
Pork names have undergone a more extensive rebranding. The butt roast, from the pig’s shoulder, is now the Boston roast. A bone-in loin chop is now a porterhouse pork chop. The cut once known as a top loin chop has become a New York chop.
The relation to beef names is not an accident. Pork producers want consumers to start thinking of pork chops as steaks, each offering a different eating experience. And they want people to cook them more like steaks, aiming for a new, lower USDA-sanctioned 145 degrees.
“For years you could go into the grocery store and buy a foam tray the size of a boogie board called ‘assorted chops,’ and it would be all over the place in terms of cut and quality,” said Stephen Gerike, director of food-service marketing for the Pork Board. “You would never get that with steaks.”
On all but the best restaurant menus, diners faced the same problem. Order a pork chop and you might get a bonier, chewier cut from the shoulder blade or a more appealing thick slice closer to the tenderloin. Soon, more uniformity will be on many restaurant menus, too, he said.
Although large-scale producers of beef, lamb, pork and veal have agreed to the name changes under the auspices of the powerful Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee, the pork people have not endeared themselves to the beef people.
“I find it ridiculous that the pork chop is now a porterhouse,” wrote Amanda Radke, a South Dakota rancher and columnist for the industry magazine Beef. “What happens when a consumer grills a porterhouse pork chop and overcooks it, so it becomes a dry, white slab of meat? Does that consumer then lump all porterhouses together and decide he or she doesn’t like the cut?”
Others are not embracing the naming conventions. Although most meat is cut according to the meat buyer’s guide put out by the North American Meat Processors Association, small-scale producers who rely on specialty processors can pretty much have their meat cut and named as they choose. Artisanal butcher shops put their own spin on meat names and cuts, using butchering standards popular in Europe or their own unique cuts designed to coax appealing meat from inside a shoulder clod or the leg of a pig.
Still, even the artisanal are discovering that uniformity matters.
“All of these butchers out there are doing their own thing, so no one is buying into a reliable language, and that’s the piece that is missing,” said Michel Nischan, a chef and the founder of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that promotes locally grown foods. “Without organizing the culinary community around a universal language, we are never going to get a reliable supply chain for anything that doesn’t come from the big guys.”
Flap vs. bavette
Cory Carman runs a grass-fed beef ranch in northeast Oregon that sells 400 head of cattle a year. To make a go of it, she has to sell every part of the animal. So naming them right is important.
Consider the flap steak, which comes off the top of the bottom sirloin, near the tri-tip. For years, she couldn’t move them. But once she called them bavettes, chefs in cities like Portland, Ore., couldn’t get enough.
“It’s chewy as hell, so you need to know how to cook it,” she said. “And it is easier to sell a chewy steak as a bavette than a flap.”
Perhaps the tri-tip is simply suffering from a branding problem in the East. Or maybe the people in California are eating more than their share. Until all of this is resolved, I have vowed to spend the coming braising season experimenting with new cuts and to consider chewier options for the grill. I am becoming, as one chef told me, “more texturally astute.”
“People have to understand the texture is going to be different and the flavor is going to be more pronounced in cuts they might not have heard of before,” said George Faison, a founder of D’Artagnan, a New York specialty meat company that has been supplying chefs since 1985. He now runs DeBragga, a New York butcher. “We have forgotten that chewing is fun and these flavors are great.”
ALL-PURPOSE CALIFORNIA BEEF RUB
Makes about 1/3 cup
2 tablespoons finely ground coffee
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
1½ tablespoons granulated garlic
1 heaping teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container.
GRILLED OR OVEN-ROASTED TRI-TIP
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1 whole tri-tip, about 2 pounds
3 tablespoons beef rub of your choice
1. Trim silver skin. The meat may have a thick layer of fat, some of which can be sliced off, but keep a good amount to help baste meat.
2. Sprinkle meat with rub and massage lightly all over. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour or as long as overnight. Remove from refrigerator an hour before cooking.
3. Prepare charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to high. Place roast on grill and sear one side well, six to eight minutes, checking for flare-ups. Turn the roast and sear other side for about the same time. Then lower gas to medium-high or move the meat to a cooler part of the charcoal grill.
4. Turn meat again and cook another eight to 10 minutes. Flip and cook again. A 2-pound roast will require about 20 to 25 minutes total cooking time. The roast is ready when an instant-read thermometer reaches 130 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the meat.
5. Rest roast on a cutting board 10 to 20 minutes. Slice against the grain. The roast is shaped like a boomerang, so either cut it in half at the center of the angle, or slice against the grain on one side, turn the roast and slice against the grain on the other side.
Alternative: To oven-roast a tri-tip, prepare meat with rub and refrigerate as instructed. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil or other cooking oil to a large, heavy ovenproof pan. On stovetop, heat on high until pan is very hot, then add tri-tip, fat side down. Turn heat to medium-high and sear roast for about four minutes. Turn the roast and put it in the oven. Cook it for about 10 minutes a pound, checking with an instant-read thermometer until it reaches 130 degrees for medium-rare.