Would you rather pay $13 a pound for beef tenderloin or $26 a pound?
Especially during the holidays when you’re more likely to be feeding tons of people, it’s good to know how to fabricate your own cuts of meat. It can save you plenty of money.
Beef tenderloin (what many people refer to as filet mignon) is the muscle that runs on either side of the spine of the cow. Cows waddle about on all fours, using mostly their shoulder and hip muscles, making those cuts (chuck, blade, shoulder and rounds) flavorful but tough. Conversely, they don’t use their back muscles often, making the tenderloin less flavorful but extremely tender.
Tenderloin is an especially good cut to buy whole and break down yourself. I think it’s easier to process than a whole chicken because it’s boneless, lies flat and is pretty hard to mess up. In fact, it’s lovely roasted whole, though I usually divide a whole tenderloin into two pieces for ease of cooking and to fit the whole roast in one large pan.
I bought the one I’m breaking down today at Sam’s Club. It was $80.48 for the whole, unpeeled tenderloin. This provides me with 6.2 pounds of unprocessed meat. The grade is choice, second to the best (prime), which happens to be the same grade the fine grocery store down the street from my house sells, for twice the price. Costco often has PSMO tenderloins (peeled, skinned, side muscle on), which are a little pricier, but if you just want to roast the tenderloin whole or cut it into steaks, that might be a good place to start — an intro to beef tenderloin butchery, if you will. There’s much less waste with a PSMO tenderloin. I’ll talk more about waste later. Either way, buying the bigger cut wholesale provides you with the same quality meat at a drastically reduced price.
There are a few things to do to get this girl pageant-ready. I start with a clean work surface (this is a large piece of meat; chances are good that it will stray from the cutting board, at least a little).
Also, figure out about how many steaks, roasts, stir-fry chunks, etc. you think your tenderloin will yield and set out squares of plastic wrap and freezer bags to accommodate them so you don’t have to do that with gooey meat hands.
First, peel and skin the filet, removing fat and silverskin. Simply trim off the fat, and for the silverskin, take a little more care. Gently slip your knife underneath the silverskin at its beginning (toward the tail end). Pull the strip off carefully, toward the butt end. Repeat until all strips of silverskin are gone.
Then I cut the tenderloin into two pieces. The big part (the butt) will be cut into roasts; the skinny part (the tail) will be cut into steaks, or filets mignon.
If you’re roasting the tenderloin whole, remove the chain from the tail piece and set aside. Sear the tenderloin, then finish in the oven. The tail will cook faster than the butt (this is the biggest advantage of cutting the tenderloin in half).
The butt piece can be left whole, tied with twine, then seared and finished in the oven as a large roast. Or, as I’ve chosen to do here, the center can be cut away to make more smaller steaks. Then the piece in the back will be saved to use for a small roast (that I thinly slice and use to top bruschetta or just use as a normal dinner protein). It would also be a good candidate for tournedos, though that dish is usually prepared from the pointed end of the tail. The front piece will be cut into cubes for kebabs.
Then move on to the tail. I remove the chain entirely. That’s the side muscle (in the foreground) — some folks leave that on and it’s entirely a personal choice, though I think it’s such a significantly different texture from the center tenderloin as to be distracting if left attached.
The chain doesn’t make good steaks, but there’s still plenty of tender meat there. I trim the fat from it, cut it into strips and use it for stir-fry. Another option is to make steak tartare with the small bits that can’t be used for steak.
After removing the chain, cut the center piece of the tenderloin into steaks (or filets mignon).
You might find it helpful to use a scale for this. I cut my steaks between 5 and 6 ounces, but you can cut them as large or small as you’d like.
When all was said and done, I had 9 (5-6 ounce) steaks, 1 (9 ounce) roast, 12 ounces of cubes and 7 ounces of stir-fry strips. I also had a little over a pound of waste (fat and silverskin). You could look at that as paying $13 for something you just throw away. I think of it as getting just shy of 50 ounces of filets mignon, plus the roast, cubes and stir-fry strips for exactly what I would have paid for the 50 ounces of steak at the grocery.
I’m totally fine with having three extra meals worth of excellent beef in exchange for 45 minutes of simple butchery. Try it — I bet you will be too.