Fillet mignon

The tenderloin, round at its top and narrowed to a point at the bottom, is the reigning royal cut of beef, known for its tenderness, its butter-like texture and its regal price tag. Big-money steaks are cut from the tenderloin, including filet mignon, chateaubriand, tournedos and the tender, juicy log of tenderloin nestled under flaky pastry in beef Wellington.

When it’s time to entertain, a neatly sliced, whole tenderloin graces any table with elegance. Yet, cooking this cut of meat to medium-well while maintaining its tenderness is tricky. It takes precision plus a knowing touch.

Understanding the Cut

A piece of beef with veins of white running through it, such as a Delmonico, t-bone or New York strip, has marbling. That marbling, or fat, is a major contributor of flavor in a steak. Prime cuts contain more fat than those designated Select or Choice, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Guide on Nutrition and Healthy Eating. The more you pay for a well-marbled steak, the more you’re paying for fat.

With no bone and thin veins of marbling, the tenderloin’s price reflects the quantity of actual meat in the package. The calorie count and fat content in a tenderloin is just under that of its lesser expensive cousins and yields a steak that’s so tender it can be cut with a fork; no hearty steak knives are needed as long as it’s prepared correctly and not left to dry out.

Timing Is Everything

A too-well-done tenderloin yields a tough piece of meat. The more you heat it, the more the juices dry out and the meat fibers cling to each other. This creates a wall of chewy beef. As delicate as the tenderloin is, so are the proper cooking techniques that yield a juicy steak instead of a piece of beef jerky.

From Skillet to Oven

Searing a tenderloin log results in a crispy outer crust and juicy interior. A quick 5-minute sear on all sides caramelizes the exterior. The tenderloin will have shrunk slightly during the searing, as some of its water is expelled. Once seared, season it to taste, then place the skillet and the tenderloin into the oven, heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Let it heat for about 15 minutes.

Do not cut the meat to test for doneness, as the cut releases whatever juices are left and makes this expensive cut of beef drier. A meat thermometer that reads 150 F indicates the beef is medium-well done. Another test for doneness is to touch it. If it’s squishy, it’s rare. A little firmer means medium, and a touch that yields no resistance is a steak that’s well done. Go for a tiny bit of resistance for medium-well.

Cooking in a high-heat oven dries out a tenderloin, as the dry heat sucks the water from the beef, so test the meat for doneness frequently as it heats in the oven. The medium-well done tenderloin should be slightly pink in the middle, but it won’t be as tender as its name describes.

From Oven to Skillet – a Reverse Sear

Keeping a medium-well piece of tenderloin moist and juicy is difficult. Another technique known to maintain a meat's juiciness is to put the tenderloin on a rack that’s placed over a foil-lined baking sheet. Season it to taste, then put it into an oven that’s been heated to 250 F. Bake until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 125 F, which may take about 45 to 55 minutes, depending on the thickness of the tenderloin.

Remove the meat and wrap it in foil. Let it sit for 15 minutes. After it has rested, heat a skillet on medium-high. Add a touch of vegetable oil and when the oil is wavy, place the tenderloin into the skillet. Sear for 2 minutes on all sides. Do the touch test for doneness. When the meat barely responds to the touch, it’s medium-well. Let the meat sit for 15 minutes, then carve to reveal the pinky interior of a medium-well done tenderloin.