Beef tenderloin is widely regarded as the most tender cut of beef, and it's certainly the most expensive. It's a portion of the ever-popular T-bone or porterhouse steak, and the upscale filet mignon comes from it as well. These tender steaks do well with a quick stove-top sear before getting finished in the oven. You can also cook a whole tenderloin or divide it into smaller roasts.
What Is Beef Tenderloin?
The beef tenderloin is an oblong muscle called the psoas major, which extends along the rear portion of the spine, directly behind the kidney, from about the hip bone to the thirteenth rib. It doesn't get much exercise, which is why the meat is so tender. It's encased in a thick layer of crumbly fat known as kidney fat or suet, which can be used in much the same way as lard.
A smaller, very skinny muscle called the psoas minor, commonly referred to as the chain, runs the length of the tenderloin and is often (but not always) removed before the tenderloin makes it to the meat case. At the other end there's another muscle, the iliacus, sometimes called the side muscle or wing muscle.
How to Cook Beef Tenderloin
Cook a tenderloin quickly over high heat (like on the grill) so that the exterior becomes nicely browned while leaving the interior juicy and medium rare. You can also sear it in a smoking hot skillet on the stove top, then finish it in a 450 F oven.
In terms of seasonings, high-end steaks generally don't need much more than kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. But because beef tenderloin is so lean, it can also benefit from a quick dunk in a flavorful marinade. You can also serve it with a red wine pan sauce or a buttery, silky béarnaise.
What Does Beef Tenderloin Taste Like?
The tenderloin is a lean cut with comparatively little intramuscular fat, known in culinary terms as marbling. And marbling happens to be one of the major factors in making a cut of beef moist and flavorful.
Thus, beef tenderloin dries out if you overcook it. Moreover, despite its popularity, it's not known as a particularly flavorful cut of beef, which is why you'll often see a tenderloin steak prepped with a strip of bacon wrapped around it. The bacon adds flavor and moisture to a steak that otherwise might not have enough of either.
The tenderloin is the key to the entire beef short loin. Before butchering each side of beef, a decision has to be made about whether to leave the tenderloin in or remove it. If the tenderloin is removed, as it often is, the short loin can be cut into boneless top loin steaks, also known as strip steaks. If the tenderloin is left in, the short loin can be cut into T-bone and porterhouse steaks. These are bone-in steaks with a section of strip loin on one side of the bone and a section of tenderloin on the other side.
Producing T-bone and porterhouse steaks means a portion of the tenderloin will remain in the sirloin. This rear part of the tenderloin, called the butt tender, can be extracted, trimmed, and sold as a roast or portioned into individual steaks.
The tenderloin is shaped like a pencil, with a fat end at the rear (the sirloin end) and a pointy end facing forward. This pointy tip can be a challenge to use since the shape doesn't lend itself to being made into a steak, but if it's left attached to the roast, it can easily overcook. Therefore, when you roast a whole tenderloin, you should fold the tip over and tie it to the main body of the roast.
The tenderloin tip can also be removed and used in bite-size hors d'oeuvres, on kabobs, or as stir-fry meat. Another common technique for dealing with the skinny part of the tenderloin is to cut a longer section, perhaps two inches long, and then butterfly it, which effectively produces a wider steak that's about an inch thick.
The filet mignon sits just next to the pointy tip. Where the tenderloin widens farther down, you can cut medallions. At the other end, butt tender steaks are sometimes tied with butchers twine to hold the wing muscle and the tenderloin muscle together.
Cooking with Beef Tenderloin
You can cook a whole beef tenderloin or enjoy it cut into a smaller roast or as steaks. However, you decide to prepare it, though, keep in mind that it generally tastes best at medium rare. Without a lot of interior fat, the meat turns dry and tough if it gets overcooked.
Where to Buy Beef Tenderloin
You can buy beef tenderloin at the meat counter in most grocery stores or at specialty butcher shops. A tenderloin generally weighs between 4 and 7 pounds and serves about four people per pound. You can purchase filet mignon, T-bone, or porterhouse steaks either individually or in packages. Look for steaks cut at least 1.5 inches thick, which makes it easier to keep the center to medium rare.
Storing Beef Tenderloin
Store beef tenderloin in the store packaging in your refrigerator for up to three days. In vacuum-sealed packaging, it can last for about three weeks in the refrigerator and up to six months in the freezer. Thaw beef tenderloin overnight in the refrigerator or submerged in cold water. Immediately refrigerate any leftover cooked meat in an airtight container and use it within three days.
Nutrition and Benefits of Beef Tenderloin
Like all beef cuts, the tenderloin is high in protein and contains a significant amount of the B vitamins. It's also comparatively low in fat and a source for minerals such as selenium, zinc, phosphorous, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
Tenderloin fits the United States Department of Agriculture's classification of lean beef, which must contain less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving. However, tenderloin contains more than 1,200 calories per pound, and most actual servings weigh double or even triple the 3-ounces used to calculate the nutrition profile.