Recently while trimming beef tenderloins for a private dinner it occurred to me that cleaning a whole tenderloin might be something a few of my readers might be interested in knowing how to do. So, as I worked, I started snapping pictures of the process. If you are a person who doesn't particularly like to look at raw meat, today's post might not be for you. But, if you would like to be able to purchase a whole, unpeeled beef tenderloin and trim it down to its usable parts, this post is for you.
If you purchase a whole beef tenderloin it will most likely come packaged in cryovac:
Whole tenderloins vary quite a bit in weight. I prefer tenderloins that are less than seven pounds—preferably in the 5 to 6 pound range. In that weight range, the central portion of the tenderloin is narrow enough to produce "filet mignon" steaks that are thick, even when cut into smaller (5 to 6 oz.) steaks, or a center cut roast that is narrow enough to cook quickly and evenly to a nice medium rare.
When you open the cryovac package, make sure that you are over the sink. There is quite a bit of blood in the package and you don't want this all over your work surface (or the floor). Slice open the package. I usually grab the tenderloin at the small end and hold it upright over the sink while I use my boning knife to slice downward along the length of the tenderloin, carefully sliding my knife in between the meat and the plastic so as not to cut into the meat. Pull the drained tenderloin from the package and transfer it to your work surface—hopefully a nice large cutting board.
To begin, use your hands to pull away any large chunks of fat. Some of the membrane will also pull easily away. As you probe the tenderloin with your fingers you will discover that there is the main long muscle and a small sinewy, fatty piece that runs the length of the entire tenderloin. This is called the chain and it is attached most securely at the head (the thicker end) of the tenderloin.
The chain has some meat, but it is mostly fat and sinew. Restaurants sometimes add the chain to beef and veal stocks. At home, if you don't mind going to the trouble, you can carefully trim away the fat and sinew to produce a small amount (about a third of a pound from a 5 1/2 pound whole tenderloin) of scrappy meat. This meat can be marinated, skewered and grilled, or sautéed quickly for a soft taco or a quick pasta. It is a bit of tedious job for a small amount of meat. Since I was trimming three tenderloins, I went ahead and did it. Here is the cleaned chain trim that I got from those three tenderloins:
Flip the tenderloin over
and begin to cut away the thick chunks of fat by carefully sliding your knife along the length of the tenderloin (again, using knife strokes that run in the head to tail direction). There is generally a big chunk of fat under the head (at the base of the head) that should be pulled away—doing so will create a bit of a flap but that is normal. After scraping and slicing the most apparent fat away from the tenderloin, there will still be some fat that is visible, but removing it would involve digging into the meat, which is not something you want to do. Here is the filet after the chunks of fat have been sliced and scraped away (with the pile of fat to the left):
Turn the filet back over and remove the most apparent fat from the top of the tenderloin. All that should be left to remove now is the long thick membrane that runs about two-thirds of the way down the tenderloin from the head. This is called the silverskin.
The silverskin must be removed. When subjected to the heat of the oven, sauté pan or grill, it shrinks and will cause the filet to curl. It is also tough and inedible. Because the silverskin is tough and sinewy it is fairly easy to remove. Slide the tip of your knife under a portion of it, starting at the head end, and holding your knife at an angle so that it scrapes the underside of the silverskin (your blade should not be angled in towards the meat), run the blade down the length of the filet, removing the silverskin in long thin strips. As you can see from the picture, the silverskin comes away scraped almost entirely clean of meat.
When the silverskin has been completely removed, look over the whole tenderloin and remove any stray bits of fat, sinew and silverskin that remain on the surface. When you are done, you will have a cleaned whole filet that is entirely edible, the chain which may be trimmed further to produce small bits of meat and a large pile of unusable trim (about 30% of the original weight will not be usable).
The usable meat can be cut into the center cut filet, the thin tail and the large and oddly-shaped head. I like to use the center cut filet for roasting whole. Roast center cut filet produces beautiful, uniformly shaped slices that are perfect for serving at formal dinners. A 5 1/2 lb. tenderloin will yield a 2 lb. center cut filet. This center portion (at the bottom of the picture) could be cut into steaks if you prefer.
The tail and head pieces can be cut into steaks and small, roughly 1-inch sized pieces that can be used for a quick sauté (beef stroganoff, for example). Or, if you look at the head portion (the upper left piece in the above image) you will notice that it is mostly comprised of the central portion of the filet that gets very narrow as you approach the left end, and a fatter, slightly oval shaped piece. I like to cut the large, slightly oval portion away from the head in one piece. This resulting piece of tenderloin (the top, center piece in the picture below), when cut from a 5 1/2 to 6 lb. tenderloin, makes a perfect small roast for two. I then cut the remaining portions of the head into steaks and the smaller pieces already described. Occasionally the tail end is too thin and narrow to be cut into a steak (pictured on the lower right in the picture below). Because it weighs enough to be a steak, it seems a shame to cut it into small pieces. If you like, this piece can be can be cooked and sliced across the grain--just like a pork tenderloin.
I don't do this and I don't recommend it. When you tie a tenderloin you are forcing exterior surfaces to become part of the interior of the roast. This is important because exterior surfaces are subject to contamination—salmonella, e coli, etc. Anything that has possibly been contaminated with these types of bacteria needs to be cooked to 160° F in order to make it safe for consumption. I like to eat tenderloin at an interior temperature of about 125°F, so if I tie the tenderloin and cook it to the temperature at which I like to eat it, these exterior surfaces, which are now inside the roast, will not get hot enough to kill any possible bacterial contamination.
It is fine to roast the whole tenderloin, but I wouldn't bother to tie it. Even though the head end is oddly shaped, it will roast to roughly the same internal temperature as the middle portion of the tenderloin—the slices from the head end just won't be perfectly round. I would trim the tail end off and use it for something else, or leave it on (not folding it under) in case there is someone among your guests who would prefer their meat to be well done.
The 5 pound 9 ounce whole tenderloin that I trimmed and cut up yielded the following: 3 lbs. 6 oz. meat appropriate for steaks or roasts (60.7% of the original weight), 6 oz. of small pieces for quick sautés (6.7% of the original weight), 5 oz. of usable trimmed chain meat (5.6% or the original weight), 1 1/2 lbs. unusable scrap (27% of the original weight).
When you are done cleaning your tenderloin, decide how you will want to use it. Then portion it accordingly. Anything you don't want to use immediately, wrap and freeze. I freeze small roast-type and steak portions by wrapping them individually in plastic and putting these individually wrapped pieces into freezer bags. The small bits I package in packets according to what I am likely to use for one meal—in my household of two, these would be packets weighing 8 to 10 ounces.
The day I trimmed the tenderloins was a long day, but I still wanted to take the time to prepare some of the tenderloin for our dinner. I decided on a couple of the petit filets (from the narrow end of the center portion of the head). I seasoned them with salt, pepper and rosemary in the early afternoon.
About an hour before I wanted to cook them I pulled them out of the refrigerator to bring them to room temperature. I roasted some potatoes and then pan-seared the filets.
While they cooked and rested I made some Peperonata from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I sliced the filets and served everything with some arugula dressed with lemon and olive oil. The flavors were simple and clean and complimented the steaks beautifully.