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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research, he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.
Santa Maria grills have been around for more than 150 years, yet the open frame grills design has stayed classic and straightforward. With a winding mechanism that lets you pull the grate up or lower it down, you can smoke stubborn meats like beef tri-tip, the classic Santa Maria menu offering, without fear of overcooking.
Simply add a dry rub of garlic and salt, the sweet and spicy aroma of burning red oak, and the baked earth smell of California, and you have the perfect Santa Maria grilling experience. However, you slice it, the results will be delicious, with only a little effort on your part.
Many homeowners can prepare a good dinner by using a regular grill, and we would recommend reading our guide for the best stainless steel grill for the money, but opting for the Santa Maria grilling experience is something that shouldn’t be missed.
What is a Santa Maria Grill?
Originating from California’s central coast, Santa Maria grills are open steel grills with a turning mechanism and chains at the top. Hailing from the 18th century from Santa Maria county, this open frame grill is a close sibling to an Argentine parrilla.
Santa Maria grills cook with reductive heat (instead of inductive like closed lid grills) and include a crank that can raise and lower the grill surface, depending on how near or far you want your meat to the flames.
Traditionally, a Santa Maria grill menu offered tri-tip meat, a cut that is notoriously easy to overcook due to its low-fat content. Smoking tri-tip beef on a Santa Maria grill is straightforward because you can adjust the grill surface’s distance to the flames. You can crank the meat up if the fire is especially lively and lower them once the coals bed down.
California locals use live oak to burn in their Santa Maria grills, also known as red oak. This wood gives the meat a sweet and spicy flavor, which, when combined with the dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic, creates some of the best barbeques on the continent.
With Swiss-Italian immigrants flooding into California’s central valleys to work the farms, tortillas, a mainstay in Mexican cuisine, were replaced with garlic bread and cold pasta salad, and the salsa became less spicy with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. If this sounds palatable to you, here’s how to build this type of ingenious grill so you can cook your own Santa Maria feast.
Materials for Your Santa Maria Grill
Santa Maria grill plans usually describe rectangular-shaped grills that are either 3- or 4-sided. The grill surface can be lowered and raised, and there’s a pan underneath to catch grease and ashes, making clean-up a little easier.
At the top are two wheels connected to chains and a pulley system that evenly lowers and raises the grates when you’re barbecuing, making burned steaks a thing of the past. Here are the things you’ll need to build a Santa Maria Grill for your backyard barbeque.
Before you start construction, you should decide whether you want a 3-sided or 4-sided grill. There are pros and cons to each, and here are some more details about either style.
If you decide that you want to leave one side of your Santa Maria grill open, it will be easier to arrange or rearrange the wood underneath the meat. It also reduces the number of steps it takes to get the grill going.
A grill with all 4 sides retains heat well, creating an efficient and quick cooking experience. But you have to raise and lower the grate to stock and stoke the fire, which can be troublesome at times.
Once you’ve gotten all the materials together and have decided whether you want the ease of the 3-sided Santa Maria grills or the excellent heat retention of a 4-sided grill, you need to start the process of carrying through with your Santa Maria grill plans.
Steps to Build Your Santa Maria Grill
There are 5 key steps to making your Santa Maria grill. You should have some knowledge of metalwork, but the plans for this open frame grill are not complicated and, with a bit of resourcefulness, you can make one over a weekend: 2 to 4 days seems to be a sufficient period in which to construct your Santa Maria grill.
Step 1: Measure out the dimensions
Starting with the base and using your measuring tape, mark out your grill’s width and length, making clear indications on the metal. After you have measured the base metal sheet, mark and measure the sides and top.
Step 2: Cut the metal sheets
Using the metal cutter, trim the sheets down to size according to your measurements. You need to create grooves for the different layers of the barbecue on the grill’s sides. Measure the grate’s thickness to determine how wide your grooves should be.
Step 3: Weld the sheets together
Place the long side sheets around the edge of the base sheet. After you are entirely sure that the edges are aligned perfectly, weld the sheets together.
Start with the corner, then move to the center, and go back to the corner for the best welding technique and the most substantial seal. Repeat with the other sides, starting with the longest sheets and moving to the shorter ones afterward.
Step 4: Put legs on the grill
You can actually do this step before you weld the sides on, or you can solder the legs on after you’ve constructed the boxy shape of the grill; it’s up to you. Flip the grill over so you are looking at the bottom of it. Weld all 4 legs onto the bottom sheet, taking care to ensure they are aligned.
Step 5: Construct a pulley system
Bolt 2 upright rods on either end of the grill, making triangular metal supports at the base if you need them. Then anchor the winding rod to both vertical rods. This is the structure of your pulley system.
The Final Word
A Santa Maria grill is an easy way to upgrade your outdoor space. Without many costly materials or a lot of effort, you can construct this simple grill with its ingenious pulley mechanism in just a few days.
With live oak crackling beneath the grid and dry-rubbed tri-tip on top, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to the gorgeous gold hills and valleys of California every time you use your Santa Maria grill.