No matter which way you slice it, beef tenderloin is never going to be your cheap Tuesday night dinner. (We love puns, and you should, too.) The tender texture and subtle flavor is great for celebrating a birthday or other significant event, but you don’t have to pay the HUGE sticker price that you normally see.
Below is a picture-by-picture look at our strategy on getting beef tenderloin for a much more frugal price. Instead of the common $17.99-22.99 per pound for filet mignon at the grocery store, we get a whole tenderloin. We’ve gotten them for as cheap as $6.99 per pound, but up to $8.99 per pound is pretty good (this is Sam’s current price, it seems). Thanks to Charlie for the initial tutelage on working on a whole tenderloin.
NOTE: The directions below are for a trimmed beef tenderloin, not untrimmed. Untrimmed has a TON of extra fat on it, and we’re not entirely sure how to go about getting rid of it. In any case, if you’re brave and want to attempt an untrimmed tenderloin, look for $5.99 per pound because of all the extra un-usable stuff.
As we mentioned above, we’re working with a whole, trimmed tenderloin, which is pictured above. It usually comes in a sealed plastic bag. The benefits of a whole tenderloin, in addition to the price, are that you get ALL the meat, not just the filets. There’s the head roast and the chain meat, which are both delicious for their own purposes.
So, as the picture shows, start with the beef, a big cutting board, two knives (we don’t have a carving knife, so we used a chef’s knife and a smaller paring knife), a bowl for scraps, and a cold beer.
Open the bag with kitchen shears and let the liquid drain into the sink. We usually cut a slit in the bag and try to drain this before getting into the beef, but you could open it entirely and then lightly rinse it.
First, pull off the fat and separate the chain meat from the tenderloin. You really shouldn’t need a knife for this step. The chain meat here is pictured on the left, and you can see there is a natural separation anyway between this part and the tenderloin. Even on a trimmed tenderloin, there’s probably some excess fat, and this should be able to be pulled off with you fingers too. Be careful and patient, you don’t want to tear up the good tenderloin meat in the process of pulling the fat off.
Here’s the flip-side of the tenderloin. The chain meat, now on the right, has been mostly separated, leaving the tenderloin, pictured in the center, and the head-roast up top. Just a few cuts with a knife, carefully placed, should suffice to fully separate these three pieces from each other. Real butchers probably have much better tips that we do, but we just go with what appears to be natural separations and cut using those as guides.
NOTE: Some butchers will leave the head roast on and just cut off BIG steaks from that whole end part. While this yields some much bigger steaks, we prefer to cut the head roast off to eliminate excess fat and chewy, tough silver skin that is contrary to what we believe tenderloin should be.
Once you’ve separated the chain meat and head roast, it’s time to attack the silver skin. Silver skin is a really tough, chewy, not-fun membrane on the outside of this cut of meat, and it requires care and patience to remove it while not removing any good meat. In the picture above, you can see the silver skin both attached to the meat and as it is being peeled off. Insert your knife just under the surface of the silver skin, and use your hand to peel it off with the knife as a separating tool as you go. This is kind of like peeling a banana once you’ve made the right cuts.
And there it is! A whole beef tenderloin, free of chain meat and head roast, with no silver skin and not much excess fat. There are names for each part of this meat as you see it here, but we’re not the experts. If you want to impress your friends, you can tell them that the skinniest part, pictured here to the right, is called the filet mignon, and then further away called tournedos, and then all the way to the left is the chateaubriand. If we were smart enough to make a diagram and show you those exact parts, we would do so, but we have neither the computer expertise nor the tenderloin-know-how to accomplish that feat.
One of the biggest advantages to cutting up your own tenderloin is the ability to regulate the size of your steaks. You can see here that we’ve measured out some big steaks that are identical in thickness. This makes for much easier cooking because you only have one size to deal with. Instead of guessing that big steak needs 8 minutes for medium rare and little steak needs 5.5 minutes, now they’re all the same!
These are the four big, thick-cut filets that we got from this tenderloin. In addition, we got six slightly smaller cuts, a whole head-roast, and chain-meat stir-fry. A pretty amazing deal for $8.99 per pound.
Now, the options are infinite – go have fun with your new frugal filet mignons! ENJOY!