Pulling together an extravagant meal takes a degree of preparation and organization. Usually, savvy cooks take their lead from professional chefs and do as many steps as possible ahead of time. For example if you plan to serve filet mignon with a classic sauce and an intricate combination of side dishes, you could save time -- and ensure the necessary attention to detail -- by searing your filets before preparing the rest of the meal.
The Beef Tenderloin
Filet mignon is cut from middle of the beef tenderloin, the tenderest and most delicate portion of a steer. In any animal, the tenderest muscles do the least work, and the tenderloin's role is simply to provide support to the backbone. It doesn't actually flex or stretch, like muscles in other areas of the steer's body, so it doesn't grow denser and tougher as the animal matures. This also means its flavor is mild and delicate, much less "beefy" than other grilling steaks. To ensure the best flavor, it's important to sear the surface thoroughly.
The Importance of Browning
Plain beef can be rather bland. If you cook a small piece of beef in the microwave and eat it without seasoning, it has very little beef flavor. Much of the rich, savory flavor you associate with beef comes from searing the surface to a deep brown. That browning -- called "Maillard reactions," after the scientist who first described them -- occurs because the intense heat disrupts the amino acid molecules that make up the proteins in the beef. The amino acid fragments recombine into new, more complex molecules, creating hundreds of deep, subtle, savory flavor notes.
Searing and Cooking
Cooking your filets is a fine balancing act between creating that browning, and cooking the beef to your desired degree of doneness. Searing the surfaces to maximize flavor requires high temperatures. Yet, if you cook the filet entirely at high temperatures, it will cause the tender beef to shrink and toughen. Professional cooks have hotter and cooler sections on their massive grill and can move the fillets confidently from section to section, so they cook perfectly. At home, it's easier to sear the filets first at high heat, then cook them later at a more moderate temperature.
Time and Safety
Unfortunately, searing your filets warms them to the point that bacterial growth can occur. To maximize food safety, keep them as cold as possible until you place them on the grill. As soon as you remove the seared filets from the cooking surface, put them on a plate and refrigerate them. They should be cooked within two hours of searing, a time frame the USDA considers to safely limit the possibility of bacterial growth. For even cooking, remove your fillets from the refrigerator during the last half-hour and allow them to sit at room temperature before cooking them. This makes it easier to cook your filets to rare or medium-rare.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: How Temperatures Affect Food
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images