The best Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich recipe is here! Tender sliced beef on toasted ciabatta with caramelized onions, and creamy horseradish sauce.
Tri-tip sandwiches are popping up on menus all over the place, sometimes called a Santa Maria Steak Sandwich. The meat is often grilled for these steak sandwiches, but our version you can make anytime of year, even not in grilling season. For my sandwich recipe, we complete things with some easy caramelized red onions, melty cheese, and an amazing sauce.
Scroll down to read more about how it all comes together or click here to jump straight down to the recipe.
What Is a Tri-Tip Sandwich?
Tri-tip is a cut of beef that is a hallmark of Santa Maria-style BBQ. This type of barbecue is open-pit over a wood fire. It tends to be fairly basic other than that. Some good meat, some seasoning, fire.
Once you have your tri-tip cooked, you can serve it with some beans and some buttery garlic bread. Or, it goes into a classic Santa Maria Tri-Tip Sandwich.
Beyond the tri-tip, the other things that are typical of a Santa Maria Tri-Tip Sandwich are: some crusty bread or rolls, caramelized onions, a spicy creamy sauce (like a jalapeno aioli or our creamy horseradish sauce), and optionally some cheese and some greens like arugula. I know you can already tell why these sandwiches are becoming so popular everywhere, right?
How To Cook The Tri-Tip
For this steak sandwich recipe, I’m using delicious and tender tri-tip, of course. It’s a large cut of beef that’s shaped like a triangle. It weighs 2-3 pounds, making it perfect to serve multiple people.
I’m sharing how to cook the tri-tip in the recipe below, but if you have leftover tri-tip or another cut of beef or steak leftovers, you’re welcome to use that for your sandwich instead. Just thinly slice it and you’re good to go. Note also that my recipe has you pan-roasting the tri-tip by starting it on the stove and then moving it to the oven. If you’d like Grilled Tri-Tip instead, head over here!
If you’d like, you can marinate the steak first for extra delicious flavor with this Tri-Tip Marinade recipe. You can also do a dry brine if you’re planning ahead by seasoning and putting in the refrigerator for 8-12 hours before cooking, find more instructions for that in my Pan-Roasted Tri-Tip recipe. And I have a classic and delicious Santa Maria seasoning for you here, if you’d like to go that route. However, if you’re ready to get started and want to keep things simple, just rub the steak with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and let’s get cooking.
I like to first sear the tri-tip in a cast iron skillet to get it nice and browned. Then it goes into a hot oven at 450°F for 20-25 minutes. This will give you medium done beef, which is my preference for this cut. This is because the thinner ends of the tri-tip roast will actually be more well-done giving you a good variety for your diners to choose from. There’s the medium temperature beef right in the thickest part of the middle of the tri-tip, and then all the way to medium-well at the tips.
Let the beef roast rest for 10 minutes before slicing the meat. Note that tri-tip has a bit of a tricky grain pattern that changes directions in the middle, so if you’re not familiar, take a look at my How to Cut Tri-Tip post for a guide, with videos and diagrams so you know you’re doing it right. But the main thing is, have a look at the grain, notice how it changes, and be ready to turn the meat around as you cut it so that you are always slicing against that grain.
Tri-Tip Sandwich Ingredients
While the beef cooks, you can get the rest of your sandwich ingredients ready.
I love sliced red onions done in a quick caramelization process on the stovetop with butter and brown sugar. If you don’t have or don’t want to use red onion, a sweet onion like Vidalia is a great choice. If using a regular white or yellow onion, choose a big one or two medium-sized ones, and use 2 tablespoons of brown sugar instead of one to make up for the difference in sweetness.
You’ll also need bread for your sandwich, of course! My choice is a nice ciabatta roll. And you of course need a tasty sauce. Creamy Horseradish sauce is the perfect choice, made with prepared horseradish, sour cream, chives, and mayo.
A lot of Santa Maria Sandwiches have a spicy aioli instead of the horseradish sauce I’ve used here. I tried it with the aioli and found it a bit bland. Having said that, those sandwiches also often have arugula. I found that the spiciness of the horseradish and the spiciness of the arugula competed with each other.
So, my conclusion was that the best tri-tip sandwich is either with the aioli and arugula or with horseradish and no arugula. I chose the latter because I’m obsessed with horseradish and love it on all steak sandwiches, so of course I wanted it on this tri-tip steak sandwich too.
The final touch? Cheese! Go with slices of American or Provolone cheese here, both options will melt nicely on the bun. Gouda is a good option as well, and it will also melt nicely.
Chili Aioli Recipe (An Option)
If you want to do a spicy aioli instead of the horseradish, that’s a great option. Mix together 1/2 cup of mayo with 1 minced fresh jalapeno (without the seeds if you want it milder), 1/4 teaspoon of lime juice, and salt to taste. Two tablespoons of chopped pickled jalapeno slices can be used instead of the fresh, but then skip the lime juice. This makes less than the 3/4 cup of horseradish sauce called for in the recipe below because the aoili is richer and more potent, so you’ll want to use a bit less of it on the sandwiches than you would use of the horseradish sauce.
Assemble Your Sandwich
To assemble your tri-tip sandwich, you split and then toast the sandwich rolls. The easiest way is to spray with olive oil cooking spray or spread them with butter first, then put them under the broiler (cut side up) until toasted. It only takes a few minutes so keep an eye on them.
Take the bun tops off of the baking sheet. Only the bottoms are going back under the broiler. But with toppings! So, to the bottoms you spread on your horseradish sauce, then top with slices of the cooked tri-tip, the cheese, and the lightly caramelized red onion. That goes back under the broiler until the cheese melts. While those bottoms with toppings are in there, spread the top buns with more horseradish sauce. When the bottoms come out, top them with their sauced-up lids and get ready for the best steak sandwich ever!
Other Cuts Of Beef To Use
Sometimes tri-tip is tough to find. If you really want to make this sandwich but need to use a different cut, you absolutely can. Your best bets are going to be large-ish cuts of beef that are typically grilled or pan-seared and then sliced. My favorites are flank steak (learn how to cook flank steak here) and skirt steak (learn how to cook skirt steak here). You could use a big rib eye or even a tomahawk steak for this, I just think that’s a bit pricier and not the best way to serve those kinds of steaks. If you wanted to use a more economical grilling-style steak for this, I’d get a few chuck eye steaks and use those (learn how to cook chuck eye steaks here).
More Delicious Sandwich Recipes
- Shredded Beef Sandwiches
- Philly Cheesesteak
- Sausage and Pepper Hoagies
- Pulled Chicken Sandwiches
- Crispy Hot Honey Chicken Sandwich
Podcast Episode About Making A Tri-Tip Sandwich
Listen to me explain briefly about how to make this sandwich, along with some other great tips, by clicking the play button below:
I cannot wait for you to try this amazing tri-tip sandwich! If you’d prefer to grill the tri-tip, you can do that instead of pan-roasting. The instructions for grilling tri-tip are over here. Enjoy! -Christine xo
- 2 lb. tri-tip steak
- 2 and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, divided
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 2 Tbsp. cooking oil
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 1 large red onion, sliced
- 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 6 ciabatta buns, split
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 3/4 cup creamy horseradish sauce*, divided
- 6 slices of Provolone or American cheese
- Rub the steak all over with 2 teaspoons of the salt, the pepper, and garlic powder.
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- Heat a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cooking oil and swirl it around to coat skillet. Add the steak to the skillet. Cook undisturbed until well-browned underneath, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook until well-browned underneath, another 4-5 minutes.
- Transfer skillet with steak to the oven. Cook until desired internal temperature is achieved in the thickest part of the steak, recognizing that the thinner parts and edges will be a bit more well-done than that.**
- Remove skillet from oven and immediately take steak out of pan. Set it on a cutting board or platter to rest for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add the red onion and stir to coat. When some pieces just start to brown, reduce the heat to low. Stir in the brown sugar and season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Pre-heat the broiler and set a rack about 6 inches from the heating elements.
- Slice the tri-tip against the grain. Set aside.
- Put the tops and bottoms of the buns split-side-up on a large baking sheet. Spray split sides of buns with the cooking spray. Put baking sheet on the rack below the broiler and cook until tops of buns are toasted, 2-4 minutes. Remove pan from oven.
- Take the bun tops off of the baking sheet and set aside. Spread the bottom buns with 1 tablespoon of horseradish sauce each. Top each with one sixth of the sliced tri-tip, 1 slice of cheese, and then one sixth of the cooked onions. Put pan of bun bottoms back under the broiler just until the cheese melts, 2-4 minutes.
- Meanwhile, spread the bun tops with 1 tablespoon each of the horseradish sauce.
- Remove the pan of bun bottoms from under the broiler. Top each bottom with a top and serve.
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*You can use store-bought creamy horseradish sauce or the homemade one linked to. The other thing you can use instead is a quick, spicy aioli. You’ll use a bit less of this than of the horseradish. Simply combine 1/2 cup of mayonnaise with 1 minced jalapeno (remove seeds to make it milder, if desired), 1/4 teaspoon of lime juice, and salt to taste.
**Test 5 minutes before the lowest times given because some tri-tips are thinner than others. These times are just a general guide. Test the temperature using an instant-read or electric probe thermometer:
12-17 minutes for 125°F (rare)
15-20 minutes for 135°F (medium-rare)
20-25 minutes for 140°F (medium)
25-30 minutes for 150°F (medium-well)
30-35 minutes for 160°F (well-done).