Picanha vs Tri Tip: The Differences Explained!

Tri Tip vs Picanha

Picanha vs Tri Tip: The Differences Explained!

If you’re into red meat, you’re surely an expert on ribeyes and tenderloins, short ribs and sirloins. But a cow is a complex animal, and an expert butcher will cut out dozens of unique cuts from the beef. The world of meat is full of surprises!

And although we all have a favorite steak, there’s always room for new discoveries. Amongst the most exciting lesser-known cuts of beef, you’ll find the picanha and the tri-tip.

Tri Tip vs Picanha

You’ve probably heard about them; they’re growing in popularity. The question is, what are they? Where do they come from? And most importantly, are the picanha and tri-tip the same thing? Here’s all you need to know about these flavorful cuts of meat.

Understanding the Sirloin Primal

A cow’s carcass is roughly divided into eight primal cuts: from neck to tail; you’ll find the chuck, rib, loin and round, all along the cow’s back. On the lower half of the cow, the rest of the primal cuts are the brisket, shank, short plate and flank. And let’s agree to disagree if you know these with different names; after all, butchering is an interpretative art.

What we’re most interested in is in the Sirloin Primal, in the back of the cow, just before the round.

The sirloin primal is then divided into Bottom Sirloin Butt and the Top Sirloin Butt. From the Bottom Sirloin, you get several cuts, including the tri-tip. The picanha, on the other hand, comes from the Top Sirloin Butt or Rump. So, no, the tri-tip and the picanha are different cuts of meat. Here’s more about them.

What is a Picanha?

The picanha (pick-AHN-yah) is a cut from the rump cap muscle, and it’s easy to recognize for its round top covered by a thick fat cap. The picanha has somewhat of a triangular shape, which is why sometimes people confuse it with the obviously triangular tri-tip.

Actually, the cut was popularized in Brazil, and it’s the star of the show in the country’s steakhouses specialized in endless ‘spades’ or meat skewers cooked over a direct flame.

This muscle works harder than the tenderloin and the ribeye (See Picanha vs Ribeye for more information), to mention a few, but it doesn’t work all that hard. This means the cut is tough but still suitable for the grill. You won’t find much intramuscular fat or marbling, though, but the fat cap helps infuse the meat with flavor.

What is a Tri-Tip?

Also called Newport, Santa Maria or Triangle Steak, this triangle-shaped cut was popularized in California in the 1950s, but it was already available in the States since the early 1900s. It has enjoyed on-and-off popularity through time.

The tri-tip comes from the Bottom sirloin, and it’s a five-pound boneless muscle with a beautiful marbling — the steak is still on the lean side, and it’s quite tender unless it’s overcooked. Of course, it lacks the fat cap typical in the picanha. Flavorful and beefy, the tri-tip has many uses in the kitchen and grill, and it’s a butcher’s favorite.

Main Differences Between the Picanha and the Tri-Tip

  • The picanha has little marbling but a thick fat cap. The tri-tip has a nicer marbling but no fat strip.
  • The tri-tip comes from the bottom sirloin, and the picanha comes from the top round.
  • The tri-tip was popularized in California. The picanha is famous in Brazil.
  • The picanha has a somewhat triangular shape, but it’s rounder than the much more triangular tri-tip.
  • A picanha steak is often cut thicker than a tri-tip.
  • Traditionally, the tri-tip is cooked in a smoker and the picanha in a skewer over direct heat.
  • Technically, the tri-tip consists of the tensor fasciae latae The picanha from the biceps femoris muscle.

Fun fact: Interestingly, the tri-tip is called maminha in Brazil, and the picanha is called rump cap in the US.

How to Cook a Picanha?

To cook the perfect picanha, make sure you don’t trim that thick fat cap; it will keep the meat juicy and infuse it with lots of flavor. If you’re working with the entire piece, cut the steaks at least 1″ to 1.5″ thick.

In the grill, cook picanhas over the hottest part of the grill to sear and finish over low heat. If cooked in a skillet, sear the steak and finish in the oven. Using a meat thermometer, look for a core temperature of 130°F.

To cook picanha traditionally, use a skewer and insert the picanha both ways, forming a ‘C.’ Cook over extremely hot embers. It will drip quite a lot. Season lightly with salt and pepper; this flavorful steak needs little condiment.

Here is how I smoke picanha on a Treager.

How to Cook a Tri-Tip?

Tri-tip steaks are usually 1″ thick, and the meat is so tender you need not marinate it before cooking. The steak is versatile, too, as you can smoke it, grill it, broil it, oven-roast it or pan-sear it.

On the grill, 6-8 minutes on the hottest part of the grill are usually enough to cook a tri-tip steak perfectly. It doesn’t have lots of fat or connective tissue to render over low heat. The same goes for broiling; go with high heat and flip the steak once halfway through.

Pan searing a tri-tip steak is immensely satisfying, as the meat cooks evenly. You can sear it in a cast-iron skillet and finish it in the oven for the best results. Look for a core temperature of 135°F.

Here is how I smoke tri tip on a Traeger.

The Best part? You Don’t Have to Choose!

So, which one’s better, the tri-tip or the picanha? That’s up to you. The truth is that both cuts have their pros and cons, and you might like one over the other, but there’s no doubt both are noble cuts of beef with limitless possibilities.

The best way of learning about cuts of beef is enjoying them side by side, so, if you can, get yourself some nice tri-tip steaks and some picanha and grill away.

Talk to your local butcher and see what he’s got for you. We’re pretty sure you’ll find both unsung cuts of meat charming, so show some love to the tri-tip and the picanha! That’s the cool thing about beef; you learn something new every day, right?

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