In case you missed it, August 13th was National Filet Mignon Day. Which makes this National Filet Mignon weekend, doesn’t it? If you were looking for a new excuse to spoil yourself with the most melt-in-your-mouth tender cut of beef, now you have one!
Filet Mignon: A Tender Favorite
It comes from the tenderloin—the least worked muscle of the animal, so it’s the least tough. This ultra tender cut of meat is also very lean. There isn’t very much fat to add to its flavor and mouth-feel in the final product. Care has to be taken to prepare the meat to optimize the cut’s texture.
What Makes a Great Filet Mignon?
The perfect filet mignon will have a tender, juicy interior with a flavorful, crisp exterior. While complimentary to the taste, these are actually two very different objectives and each will each take its own careful preparation to achieve.
A Tender, Juicy Interior
We’ll start with the interior of the meat. Most connoisseurs of the almighty filet mignon would agree that it’s sacrilege to let the meat cook beyond medium rare (130°F [54°C]). That’s because, if it’s cooked much further, this cut loses its buttery texture.
Remember, there isn’t much fat in the lean filet. Higher heat quickly denatures the protein strands, making them tough and chewy. So we will take extra care in monitoring the internal temperature of our filet mignon! We’ll also want to cook the interior of the meat slowly, to achieve uniformity of texture and taste. Convection—the transfer of heat through the air—will be gentle enough to bring the center of the meat to the perfect doneness without overcooking the layers around it. “Low and slow” is the name of this game.
A Crisp Exterior
For the exterior of the meat, however, we want the color and flavor of searing. Conduction—direct contact with a high heat source—will allow the processes of caramelization and the Maillard reaction to occur. Two stages of cooking for the perfect combination of flavors and textures.
To achieve this one-two-steak-punch, we decided to try two methods:
1. Smoking the steak first (convection) and finishing with a pan sear (conduction)
2. Pan searing first and then finishing in the oven
The initial “raw” preparation for both methods is exactly the same. Each is patted dry and then given a light sprinkling of sea salt.
Smoked then Pan-seared
Since we are shooting for a specific internal temperature, the ThermoWorks® ChefAlarm® is the perfect tool. We set the alarm to sound when the internal temperature reaches 108°F (42°C)in the smoker and then let it rest to see what the final temperature will be after carryover.
This method works great. We found that the smoked meat increased a full 22 degrees up to 130°F (54°C) while resting—perfect medium rare doneness!
After the meat rests, we bring a sauce pan up to medium-high heat for about 3 minutes before introducing the steak. The steak is pan-seared over medium-high heat for about 2-3 minutes on each side; long enough for caramelization and the maillard reaction to occur—the processes that gives the meat flavor and browning.
Pan-seared and Finished in the Oven
For our second method, we start with the searing and then bring the interior up to temperature in the oven.
We follow the same method as before, searing the raw steaks for 2–3 minutes on each side in a pre-heated sauce pan. Then the steaks are transferred to a metal baking sheet and placed on the middle rack of a 450°F (232°C)oven. Here again, we use our ChefAlarm thermometer to track the internal temperature of the steak.
In our testing, after we pulled the steak out of the oven once, it reached 120°F (49°C). Carryover cooking increased its temperature to 135°F (57°C).
Interesting! The smoked steak’s temperature went up by 7 degrees more than our pan-seared steak. The smoker’s temperature was lower than the pan, and took longer to reach its lower temperature of 108°F (42°C) but the temperature rise during resting was greater.
You may note that these are dramatic carryover temperature rises. But even on a second test, we saw a full 13°F rise during resting with normal resting conditions (the steaks rested uncovered on a cutting board at room temperature). The traditional wisdom is that you should see a 7 or 8 degree rise during resting, but our testing suggests otherwise with this cut of meat (see note).
See for yourself. On the left are the two steaks that were prepared with the pan-sear/oven method, and the right are the two steaks prepared with the smoke/pan-sear method. The smoked steaks on the right have clean, even edges and the muscle fibers are close together and fairly straight. The closer together the muscle fibers are, the more moisture the meat will retain.
The edges of the oven-cooked steaks on the left aren’t as straight and clean, and the muscle fibers are more jagged than straight. They also aren’t as close together.
What happened is that the protein had a chance to set in the smoker before the steak was put in the pan to sear, so it wasn’t initially shocked and shrunken from its raw state. The smoked steak had a noticeable but not-too-strong smokey flavor with a tender and smooth texture. The oven-finished steak was also very good, but the exterior texture was slightly tougher than the smoked one.
Typically, I eat a well-prepared filet mignon with only salt and pepper—why mess with perfection, right? But with fresh cherries still readily available in grocery stores, I decided to make a red wine sauce featuring cherries and a little added kick from some orange zest and Chinese five spice. If you haven’t made the discovery yet, red wine and Chinese five spice are magic together. I used the Steaks with Red Wine Cherry Sauce recipe from myrecipes.com and added the zest from half an orange, and 1/4 teaspoon of Chinese five spice. The sauce was rich with a little bit of zing—a great accompaniment.
Both two-stage methods work well. The texture of the interior of the meat was tender with both, but the steaks that were smoked first had better flavor and were a bit less tough on the outside. The results represented the filet mignon in all its medium rare glory, thanks to precise temperature monitoring.
Happy Filet Mignon Weekend, carnivores!
**With such a dramatic temperature increase during rest, we had to test this again! We used the pan-seared and oven-finished method for our second test. We used the exact same procedures as we did the first time with the pan-searing. The steak was pulled from the oven at 120º F. The increase in temperature with the carryover cooking peaked at 133º F—another significant jump. We still had the same result we were looking for, a tender juicy steak with a beautifully caramelized outer edge.