Santa Maria Style Barbecue

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Santa Maria-style barbecue is about as California as barbecue can get, making it a uniquely California regional BBQ style. Its pure barbecue taste shines through with the relatively short list of things needed, all having some tie to the Santa Maria Valley: tri tip, red oak wood, and pinquito beans.

The history of Santa Maria-style barbecue dates back to the 1800s when ranchers would feed their vaqueros at the end of a long cattle drive every spring. To prevent bastardization of the ‘true’ Santa Maria BBQ, the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce copyrighted the basic recipe and menu concept, which is an important community tourist draw to the area.

Menu and California Indigenous Ingredients

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A Santa Maria Style BBQ isn’t the same without these key elements: the basic rub (salt, pepper, and garlic salt), sirloin beef (tri tip for home bbq), Santa Maria Valley red oak wood, and  of course, pinquito beans. Three of the elements are indigenous to California, specifically the Santa Maria Valley region. The history of the tri tip goes like this: a butcher in the Santa Maria Valley decided to cook up a cut of meat previously used for ground beef, and gave it the name ‘tri tip’ due to its triangular shape. It is lean, but cooks up tender on the grill. While it took awhile for word to spread, tri tip now has a IMPS/NAMP classification.

The red oak wood that is used in this style of barbecue is actually the Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, native to the Western California region which ranges from Southern Oregon all the way to the Northern portion of Baja, California (the California Floristic Province). It is classified as a red oak and is a hard wood. Its smoke is hearty but not too heavy, perfect for a simply-dressed cut of meat (just a simple rub, nothing more.)

The pinquitos beans, also known as ‘pinks’, are pale pink in color and have an oval shape to them. The beans cook up firm and sweet.  They are native to the Santa Maria Valley, and currently the only farms growing them commercially are from Santa Maria, California. Pinquito beans are a required menu item if you are cooking a Santa Maria Style BBQ. A traditional recipe for pinquito beans uses bacon, ham, and Mexican red chile sauce.

Santa Maria BBQ Cooking Technique

A key element to this style of barbecue is the ability to raise and lower the meat as needed according to the level of heat coming from the wood. Traditionally, ranchers would load up top sirloin onto steel rods to cook over a bed of hot coals. The cooking technique is to get the meat close to the heat source and sear it, and then raise the meat to continue cooking until desired doneness, lowering it as the heat dies down from the coals. To achieve this today, custom grills are designed with hand cranks and chains to lift and lower the meat as needed.

Renee Shelton’s love for tri tip almost surpasses her love for cake. When she’s not tasting BBQ, she can be found at Pastry Sampler.
Main photo by Executive Chef John Shelton. You can find him sharing his fishing adventures at Dana Point Fish Company.
Dedicated to the art of grilling, smoking, and barbecuing.