Tri Tip vs Brisket: The Ultimate Comparison

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If you’ve ever seen tri-tip and a brisket side by side you may be asking yourself, “So what’s the difference?” They look pretty similar and it’s easy to confuse the two. When I first saw tri-tip, I thought it was a small brisket based on how it looked, but I was wrong.

Despite the fact that they’re both really great choices for smoking and they’re really great to work with, but that’s about where the similarities end. There are plenty of differences, and as with any other cut, there are pros and cons to each.

Let’s clear up some confusion between the two so you can get back to smoking and devouring your meats.

Main Differences Between Tri-Tip vs Brisket

The main differences between tri-tip vs brisket are:

  • Tri-tip is 3-4 pounds in size, whereas brisket is 12 pounds or more.
  • Tri-tip is relatively easy to cook for beginners, whereas brisket can be more difficult and finicky.
  • Tri-tip is considered a steak, whereas brisket is not.
  • Tri-tip comes from the bottom sirloin near the back of the cow, whereas brisket comes from the lower chest.
  • Tri-tip can be more difficult to find, whereas brisket is very plentiful and easy to purchase almost anywhere.

Tri-Tip

tri tip

Tri-tip may be easy to recognize by its triangle shape. It’s a 3-4 pound piece of meat that comes from the bottom sirloin part of the cow and has very little fat. It’s lean, meaty, and very flavorful. It’s also really easy to cook for beginners. However, it can be expensive.

Where it comes from

The tri-tip cut comes from the bottom sirloin, which is toward the rear of the animal. This is the most rudimentary difference between these two cuts. They come from different parts of the animal.

Appearance

This triangular-shaped cut is considered a steak cut. It has lovely lines of white tissue running throughout and contains the tensor fasciae latae muscle. While it’s lean and chewy, it offers a similar flavor profile to a porterhouse or t-bone.

Size

So far, the tri-tip and the brisket vary only slightly. But size is the first place where they vary rather significantly. A tri-tip only weighs between 3 and 4 pounds. It’s a great cut of meat for a family of 4-6 but could feed less or more depending on appetite.

It’s not generally a cut you would order at a restaurant because it’s too large for one person, although some restaurants may smoke it and slice it up in smaller servings as part of a larger meal.

Price

Tri-tip can be expensive because it’s so lean and meaty. It’s very healthy for you and contains very little fat. You can expect to pay around $6-8 per pound, but prices will vary depending on where you live.

However, as a general rule, tri-tip will cost about twice as much as brisket per pound.

Remember that because a single tri-tip is only 3-4 pounds, it will be cheaper per unit than a brisket that weighs 12 pounds or more. In addition, you have to trim very little of your tri-tip, because most of it is meat.

Prepping

Because the flavor of tri-tip is so strong, you don’t need to season it with much. A little salt and pepper will do just fine. If you’d like, you can use a dry rub of your choice, but you don’t need to.

Make sure you remove it from the refrigerator at least an hour before you grill it to remove the chill, allowing it to cook more evenly.

If you plan to smoke it, you’ll want to do the same. You can season it with salt and pepper or a dry rub of your choice. Remove it from the refrigerator early to let it rest for about an hour.

Cooking

Because tri-tip is technically a steak, you can grill it with a sear, just like a steak. However, because of its size, it responds very well to smoking, too. Which you decide to do will depend largely on how you like your meat cooked. The flavor of the meat responds differently to each.

You may also try smoking your tri-tip for about an hour and then placing it on the grill for a reverse sear. Measure an internal temperature of about 135°F before removing it from the heat.

Tri-tip is an easy cut to cook for beginners because it doesn’t take as much time, even if you want to smoke it. The smaller cut smokes more quickly, and it affords you more options for finishing, like grilling or pan searing. You could even slow roast it for a hands-off approach to your meal.

Flavor

Tri-tip offers a lot of beefy taste. It’s very forward, and if you enjoy the milder taste of a filet mignon, you may not enjoy a tri-tip very much. However, if you love ribeye or prime rib, tri-tip takes it to the next level.

While it’s a lean cut, the fat content gives it a tender, buttery flavor.

Where to buy

Tri-tip can be hard to find in some places. If you have access to plenty of hometown butchers and you live in the glorious Midwest, you probably won’t have too much trouble. The next time you run into some tri-tip, scoop it up and give it a try.

Pros:

  • Lean and healthy
  • Flavorful
  • Easy to cook

Cons:

  • Expensive

Brisket

brisket

Where it comes from

Brisket is a large cut of meat that comes from the lower chest of the cow. It’s just below the chuck. It’s a rectangular-shaped cut, although in many cases, it is angled at one end, making it difficult to tell it apart from the tri-tip if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The cut contains the superficial and deep pectorals. These are strong muscles that hold the entire weight of the cow. Due to the development of the muscle, it’s one of the least tender cuts you can get.

It needs sufficient smoking or roasting to make it tender and juicy, and it’s commonly smoked and turned into a barbecue.

Size

Brisket differs from tri-tip very significantly when it comes to size. A brisket is quite a bit larger. Brisket is generally between 12 and 20 pounds. While tri-tip feeds a large family, brisket will feed a party.

If you smoke a brisket for your family, you could potentially have leftovers for days afterward.

Price

You can typically purchase brisket for around $3 or $4 per pound, which is a lot cheaper than tri-tip. However, you have to consider that at the size, you’re going to pay a lot more in total for a cut of brisket.

For many people, it’s worth the total cost because it will feed so many people and go so much farther. However, you also have to consider that with brisket, you will have to trim some of the fat away, so you will lose about 30% of your weight.

Prepping

If your brisket is frozen, you need to allow plenty of time to defrost it properly. Due to its large size, it will take a few days. Place it in the refrigerator at least 72 hours before you plan to smoke it. You’ll need to allow 48 hours or more for it to defrost. Once it’s defrosted, you can begin to trim it. Briskets are easiest to trim when they’re still very cold, but not frozen.

Because the brisket is so tough, you need to leave a fair amount of fat on it. This will add to the flavor and help the brisket to become tender and juicy as it cooks. However, on the underside of the brisket, where the fat is more than a quarter of an inch thick, you do want to trim some of that away. Go slowly. It’s better to have to go back and trim it again than to trim too much.

If you have any questions about whether you should trim off any extra fat or not, run your hand over the layer of fat. If you feel any rough areas, go over them gently with your knife and smooth them out. Many times this rough fat is an indicator that the fat is too thick and it also means that the fat won’t cook out well.

In restaurants and competitions, smokers and meat masters will be much more aggressive with their trimming and make the brisket more uniform, but for you and your family, you should leave as much meat as possible and only focus on trimming the fat.

Season it with salt and pepper or a dry rub of your choice. My personal favorite is brown sugar. It’s simple but delicious. The way the sugar glazes around the outer edges of the meat makes it simply heavenly. Pull the brisket out of the refrigerator a few hours before you plan to smoke it.

Cooking

Brisket is too tough that it must be cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time. You have to break down the connective tissue and tough muscle that holds it together or you won’t be able to chew it. If you can effectively cook this piece of meat slowly, you’ll end up with an incredibly juicy and tender piece of meat. Take advantage of all the time you can when smoking a brisket. The lower and slower you cook it, the better it will be.

You can plan on smoking it at 225°F for one hour and 15 minutes per pound. Measure an internal temperature of 160-170°F before taking it off of the smoker.

Brisket is much more difficult to trim, prepare, and smoke than tri-tip, so it’s not for beginners. It requires more time and attention.

Flavor

If properly cooked, brisket has a very strong flavor. However, it also features crispy edges and tender, juicy insides. It’s a delightful treat for anyone willing to put in the work.

Cooking a brisket for too long; however, will result in a dry, leathery, chewy piece of meat that no one will enjoy. If you’re doing it for the first time, remember that there’s a learning curve, so have patience, because it’s worth it.

Where to get it

Brisket is a popular piece of meat and available almost everywhere. You’ll find it at almost every butcher and grocery store. Even if they don’t have a whole brisket, they’ll likely have a half. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a local store that doesn’t have a brisket in stock.

Pros:

  • Tender and juicy when prepared correctly
  • Affordable
  • Can feed a large group of people

Cons:

  • Challenging to cook
  • May be tough and chewy if not prepared correctly

FAQs

Which is better, tri-tip or brisket?

It depends on your definition of ‘better,’ but tri-tip is definitely leaner and higher quality. It holds together better when cooking or smoking, but it won’t be as tender or juicy. If you like your steak grilled, tri-tip is the better choice, although you can also smoke it.
However, if you want something tender and juicy, that falls apart on your fork, opt for the brisket. If you smoke it low and slow, you’ll enjoy the mouthwatering flavor at a fraction of the cost.

Is there a difference between tri-tip and tri-tip roast?

In general, when dealing with cuts of meat labeled ‘roast,’ it’s a larger portion of meat from which individual steaks are cut. In this case, the tri-tip roast is a complete roast from the bottom of the sirloin. Individual tri-tip steaks are cut from this roast.

Can you cook tri-tip like a brisket?

While you can cook tri-tip just like brisket, you need to make sure there’s enough fat on your steak first. Tri-tip steaks are notoriously lean, so you have to be careful not to dry out your final results.

Is there another name for brisket?

As Shakespeare once said, “A brisket by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or was that a rose? In either case, he’s right. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s delicious. Except there is no other name. Brisket is brisket. It’s often corned or made into pastrami, but it still starts as brisket.

The Verdict

If you like steak, tri-tip is the obvious choice. While it’s expensive, it’s a high-quality cut with very little fat and will feed your family with a rich, robust flavor. It’s easy to cook and you can either grill it or smoke it, depending upon your preferences.

If you’re up for the challenge, brisket is a bit tougher, both in texture and to cook. It takes a long time, but it’s well worth the wait for the tender, juicy result. It’s cheaper per pound and can feed you for days or provide quite a spread for your next party.

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