Top Of The Food Chain: Tenderloin


Illustration by Laura Williams

Welcome to Top Of The Food Chain, a column from Eat Me Daily's meatiest columnist, Ryan Adams. Every week we'll attempt to demystify the options available in your supermarket, breaking animals down piece by piece so that the next time you find yourself staring at endless Styrofoam containers, you'll be able to make an informed purchase. This week: Tenderloin.

I'm going to be one-hundred percent honest with you: I'm not a fan of tenderloin in most cases. It's expensive, and flavor-wise there are better cuts of beef. Mario Batali compared the cut to Paris Hilton — it's nothing special, and yet for some reason everyone wants to get a hold of it. However, the folks clamoring for filet mignon are usually after its most notable claim to fame: it's easily the most tender piece of meat you can find on a cow.

Cut: Tenderloin

filet mignon

Photograph: Chrystian Guy

The tenderloin is an oblong shape spanning two primal cuts: the short loin and the sirloin. Specifically, the tenderloin sits beneath the ribs, right next to the backbone. The smaller, pointed end of the fillet starts a little past the ribs, growing in thickness until it ends in the sirloin. Because the tenderloin muscle gets little exercise, the meat is extraordinarily tender, with the center section flaunting a texture that when cooked perfectly — to borrow a Bourdain one-liner, from A Cook's Tour — is like "driving a Rolls Royce naked in mink underpants." Yeah, it's that good, and lots of people are willing to pay top dollar for that experience.

When left whole, the tenderloin is also known as the fillet, and many neat little bits can be cut from it. There is a thick, two-to-three inch long steak that can be cut from the larger end of the fillet called the Chateaubriand, which often used in France. The chain — in France, the bavette — is a long, thin muscle found nestled next to the main muscle and is reminiscent of flank or skirt steak. The bavette is often found rolled up and tied, although I've also seen it cut into steaks.

Now, we come to filet mignon, a boneless meat cut from the small forward end of the tenderloin. The French term "mignon" means small, if you were wondering. Here in America, most butchers erroneously tend to call all tenderloin steaks filets mignon. Naughty, naughty.

While lacking in robust taste, the meat is very versatile: it can be roasted whole, steaks can be sautéed or grilled easily, all with excellent results. Marinades, rubs, and even bacon are often used successfully to enhance the muscle's flavor. Thinly sliced and served raw, you have beef carpaccio.


Photograph: NAMP Meat Buyer's Guide

Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Full
This is how most people know the tenderloin: the main muscle (psoas major) cut up into one inch thick steaks with the silver skin and excess fat removed.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin Steak, Side Muscle off, Defatted
This variation leaves the silver skin on. I'm trying to figure out why anyone would want to do such a thing, as it would ruin the beautiful texture, but the option is available if you'd like.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin Steak, Side Muscle on, Defatted
This version leaves both the silver skin and some of the fat layer intact. Remember, more fat = more flavor, and juicier meat.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin Steak
Even more fat attached, which is awesome in my book.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Full
This is the whole tenderloin, untrimmed.  It consists of the psoas major muscle, the iliacus muscle, and if present, the sartorius muscle.  All of the ragged edges should be trimmed off, and no cuts deeper than half an inch in the muscles are allowed.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Full, Side Muscle On, Deffatted
Still the full tenderloin, but with a majority of the surface fat removed.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Full, Side Muscle Off, Deffatted
This cut is just like the above one, except that the psoas minor has been removed.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Butt
The tenderloin can be bisected, and this is the "butt" or thicker end of the cut.  The psoas major muscle, the iliacus muscle, and if present, the sartorius muscle should be exposed.  The flap, or obliquus abdominis internus, should be trimmed level with the surface fat.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Butt, Deffatted
This is the same cut as the one above, but all of the surface fat has been removed.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Butt, Skinned
And to continue the theme, same cut as above, but this time with the silver skin cut off as well.


Beef Loin, Tenderloin, Short
This is the opposite end of the halved tenderloin, also called a short tenderloin.

What to look for when buying

Look for cuts with a decent amount of marbling, which, while rare in a tenderloin, is worth seeking out. The more fat, the more flavor, and the meat will be more tender when cooked. If you're going for the filet mignon sort of cut, make sure that the steak has been cut in a uniform shape to ensure even cooking. The meat itself should have a bright, cherry-red color with fat speckled throughout the muscle. Check that the muscle is firm to the touch, and that the container doesn't contain excess liquid. Plan on four to eight ounces per person.


You can keep tenderloin steaks in the refrigerator for just two days. If your meat came vacuum sealed, five days is the longest you have. Beef can be frozen in its original packaging for up to two weeks. If you're going for longer storage, you'll want to prevent freezer burn by re-wrapping the tenderloin in freezer paper, plastic freezer bags or heavy-duty aluminum foil. Try to remove as much air from the packaging as possible before sealing.

Basic Preparation

Since the filet mignon cuts from the tenderloin are so easy to cook, I'm giving you two basic preparation methods: one for the grill, one for the stove.


  • 1 filet mignon steak, 1.5" to 2" thick
  • Salt
  • Fresh ground pepper

Get your grill as hot as you can. Season the steak on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the steak on the grill for three to five minutes per side. This cut is so tender that it should never be cooked beyond a medium-rare stage. The longer you cook it, the less juicy the meat will be.


  • 1 filet mignon steak, 1.5" to 2" thick
  • Salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Cooking oil
  • A knob of butter
  • 2 teaspoons fresh, chopped rosemary

Heat a heavy bottomed pan on your stove until it's very hot. Season the steak with salt, pepper, and the chopped rosemary. Add the cooking oil to the pan, making sure that oil isn't smoking. Add the steak and the knob of butter. The steak should be in the pan for three to five minutes per side. Again, don't go beyond the medium-rare stage, as the meat will be much tougher and less juicy if cooked for too long.

Additional Recipes

Special thanks to Bob del Grosso, Chef and Charcutiere of Hendricks Farms and Dairy in Telford, Pennsylvania, for consulting on this post.

Ryan Adams

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