Filet mignon is a tender and expensive cut of beef. It is considered the king of steaks because of its melt-in-your-mouth texture. A prime filet mignon can literally be cut with a fork. Although this beef cut can be quite costly when dining out, it's much less expensive to make at home, especially if you purchase a whole tenderloin.
What Is Filet Mignon?
Filet mignon is a French name, with filet meaning thread or strip and mignon meaning small and pretty. This prized cut comes from the middle of the tenderloin (also called the short loin), which is found inside the rib cage of the cow. Because this muscle is not weight-bearing, the connective tissue is not toughened by exercise, resulting in extremely tender meat.
The name of the muscle is psoas major, and it sits inside the ribs next to the backbone. From its flat pointy end at the ribs, it gets thicker toward the rear of the animal ending at the femur. Each animal has two tenderloins, one on each side of the rib cage.
Filet mignon steaks are cut from the middle of the tenderloin, in between the pointy tip near the shoulder, known as the "tail," and the thick steak at the rear, which is called Chateaubriand. Porterhouse and T-bone steaks include the filet mignon as the medallion of meat on the other side of the bone across from the sirloin.
In the market, filet mignon slices are generally 1 to 2 inches thick and 2 to 3 inches in diameter, but true mignons are no more than an inch in diameter and are taken from the tapered end, next to the "tail." These steaks are naturally rounded as they come from the tube-shaped end of the muscle.
The silverskin is a shiny white strip of cartilage that is usually removed because it is tough to chew. The fat is usually trimmed away, though if left, it produces a bit more flavor.
How to Cook Filet Mignon
Filet mignon is very tender, but it also has a less pronounced flavor. For this reason, it is often served with an accompanying sauce or with compound butter. It may also be marinated, smoked, wrapped in bacon, or seasoned with a rub.
Filet mignon can be cooked in a variety of ways, including grilling, broiling, roasting, and pan-frying. Usually, high heat is first applied to sear the meat on both sides. Then it is transferred to lower heat to finish the steak to the desired doneness while being careful not to overcook it. Cubed tenderloin is also a popular choice for fondue hot-pots and shish kebabs.
Here are a few tips to cook filet mignon to perfection:
- Take the steak out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature, which will result in a more even cooking.
- Since the beef tenderloin and filet mignon have no surrounding fat tissue, they are often wrapped in a layer of fat (called barding) such as bacon or lard, both to keep it from drying out and to add flavor.
- Use a dry, high-heat method such as broiling, roasting, pan-frying, or grilling.
- Having so little interior fat, filet mignon should never be cooked beyond medium-rare. The longer you cook it, the drier and less tender it becomes.
- Use an instant-read meat thermometer or the touch method. For medium-rare, remove the steak from the heat when it reaches 120 F. Note that the temperature will rise a bit while the meat is resting. For the touch method, press the meat. If it feels soft and mushy and leaves an imprint, it is rare. If it is soft but slightly resilient, it is medium-rare. The moment it begins to feel firm, it is overdone. Do not cut into the meat to check for doneness as this lets precious juices escape.
- After removing the filet mignon from the heat, cover it with foil and let it rest for about five minutes before serving. Resting allows the heat and juices to be evenly distributed throughout the steak.
- Serve the filet mignon with a pat of compound butter, Béarnaise or Bordelaise sauce, or with a sauce made with the pan juices.
What Does Filet Mignon Taste Like?
Filet mignon obviously tastes like beef, but there are as many variations on the flavor of beef as there are different breeds of cattle and ways of raising them. In general, however, filet mignon tastes milder and sweeter than most other cuts of beef that come from more developed muscle areas of the steer. For the same reason, filet mignon also has a very soft texture, which adds a luscious buttery sensation to its delicate, refined, meaty flavor.
Filet Mignon vs. Sirloin
It is interesting to compare filet mignon and sirloin steak as they are right next to each other, located just on opposite sides of the rib bones. But, despite their proximity, the two are very different. The sirloin, which is divided into top sirloin and bottom sirloin, is considerably longer than the tenderloin and produces a wide variety of cuts, such as rib eye (from the upper part, beyond where the tenderloin ends), shell steak, porterhouse, New York strip, Kansas City steak (which is a New York strip with a bone), and boneless sirloin. Because this back muscle is a very much used one, the meat develops a lot of fat and pronounced beefy flavor, which also gives a more fibrous, firmer texture. For this reason, the technique of dry-aging was devised where whole bottom and top loins are hung in a well-ventilated temperature-controlled space for 14 to 28 days, which makes them both more tender and more flavorful. Filet mignon, without bone or fat, is not suitable for dry-aging.
While the tenderloin muscle and the filet mignon cut are always the same, there are numerous different breeds of cattle, each of which has its own particular characteristics. There are close to 70 breeds of beef cattle in the United States. Here are six of the most interesting ones, though you will have to search a bit for some of them.
- Black Angus (and other Angus hybrids): The most widely bred beef cattle in the United States, with good marbling and flavorful meat.
- Charolais: A breed that originated around the town of Charolles in central France, this breed has long been lauded by French chefs for its rich flavor.
- Chianina: Originating in the Val di Chiana in Tuscany, Italy, this is the cattle typically used for the classic Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick T-bone steak grilled rare over a wood fire, sliced, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.
- Piedmontese (or Razza Piemontese): This is the predominant breed of cattle in the region of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, that is naturally very low in fat and widely used in the renowned Piedmontese regional cuisine.
- Highland: Developed in the Scottish Highlands over two centuries ago, these small cows produce tasty meat that is both low in fat and well marbled. They also clearly take the prize for best cattle hairdo.
- Wagyu: From the Japanese Tajima-gyu breed that originated in Kobe, a city on the southern side of the island of Honshu, meat of these cattle has exceptional marbling, resulting in an extremely rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Besides the breed of cattle, how they are raised also makes a difference in the final taste. Most American beef cattle are fed a diet high in corn, which makes the meat fatty and flavorful. But we are starting to see more and more labels that say "grass-fed," "free-range," or "organic" beef, indicating a more natural diet where the animal roams free in a pasture and eats whatever grasses it finds. Many farmers also do a mix, allowing animals to feed on grass, then put them on a grain diet to fatten before slaughter.
Some say that grass-fed beef lacks flavor and tenderness, while others believe it is a humane way to raise animals and appreciate the firmer consistency, lower fat, and natural beef flavor. Try grass-fed beef next to conventionally raised beef and choose for yourself.
Filet Mignon Recipes
Because filet mignon is relatively low in fat and, therefore, a bit lower in flavor too, it functions as a very good partner to showcase other strong flavors, such as a rich sauce or strong spices.
- Garlic-Mustard Filet Mignon
- Cumin and Black Pepper Crusted Filet Mignon
- Filet Mignon With Creamy Peppercorn Sauce
Where to Buy Filet Mignon
Filet mignon can be bought at most grocery stores, butcher shops, and high-end gourmet food shops that have a meat department. There are even some companies that specialize in shipping pre-portioned filet mignon and other beef cuts directly to your home. Such companies may be the best source to find meat from some of the rarer breeds of cattle. The best thing, if possible, is to develop a relationship with a local butcher; they will steer you to the best cuts, advise on what is particularly good, and even provide useful cooking tips.
Look for USDA choice and prime grades. The prime grade has the fattest marbling, which makes it the most tender and flavorful. It is also the most expensive. Choice grade is available in most markets and offers good value for the money. When selecting filet mignon slices, choose the lighter-colored ones over dark red as this indicates more marbling. You will want steaks of the same shape and thickness for consistency of cooking, especially when cooking them at the same time. The steak should be resilient to the touch, and there should not be much red liquid inside the packaging.
Storing Filet Mignon
Filet mignon can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge for three to five days. If the filet is already cut into steaks, each one should be wrapped individually. Alternatively, filet mignon can be stored in the freezer for six to nine months.