Classically, Chateaubriand referred to a dish rather than to a cut of steak. Created in the early 19th century, it was a piece cut from the thickest part of fillet steak and stuffed with seasoned beef marrow. As it was meant to serve two or three diners it was very thick and thus likely to burn on the outside before the centre was acceptably cooked; the solution was to cook it between two thin slices of less expensive beef, which were then thrown away. The sauce was a very rich veal stock flavoured with tarragon. There are still those who remember the Savoy Hotel serving Chateaubriands of this type well after the Second World War.
These days, Chateaubriand is a fancy way of promising a diner a very tender steak cut from the thickest part of beef tenderloin; this is the long tapering muscle found directly on the lower two sides of the animal’s spine.
Although the most naturally tender of steaks, it is also the most delicately flavoured, mainly because there is unlikely to be any fat streaks throughout it. If not properly aged or if it is overcooked and served well done, it can be very bland and disappointing. Fillet steak is thus generally served more rare than other steaks.
Filet mignon should indicate a cut from the thin end of a whole fillet, but these days exactitude of description on menus and on butchers’ counters is a dying thing.
Fresh or frozen steaks are available year round from supermarkets, butchers and specialist web-based meat retailers.
Choose the best
Beef steaks are more tender and most delicious when the carcass has been well aged under controlled conditions. Three weeks, 21 days, is an accepted minimum but developing techniques have extended this to well over 30 days. Aging meat in caves made from blocks of Himalayan salt, which appears to control unwanted bacterial action, gives extended ageing time. Look for ageing information on labels and expect to pay more for maturer steaks. Ideally, choose steaks that have been cut evenly thick or thin, which makes cooking more reliable and eating much more pleasurable.
Fresh steak should be refrigerated for several days only. They may be bought frozen or frozen at home, in which case use them within a month or so and defrost very slowly, ideally in a refrigerator overnight. Vacuum-packing further extends life, for months as fresh meat and up to a year for frozen steaks.
Fillet steaks are usually cut rather thick – up to 5cms/2”. Most cooking details on pre-packed steaks suggest wildly exaggerated cooking times. Provided the steak is at room temperature and the pan is properly heated, a general guide would be up to four minutes each side and a resting time of at least four minutes, which should produce excellent results.
It is common to serve a sauce with a Chateaubriand steak and these are often wine-based, creamy and rich, sometimes with mushrooms; highly flavoured sauces, unless in very small portions more like a garnish, will swamp the delicacy of flavour for which you have paid a premium.
It’s often suggested that steaks are lightly coated with olive or other oils before cooking but this tends to create unwanted smoke; using a heavy, non-stick pan is a better plan but an ordinary pan at high temperature is unlikely to stick. Seasoning is best added after cooking, while the steak is resting.
It is very important to keep the cooking temperature high; too low a temperature encourages moisture to escape, which means the steak will stew and toughen. Equally important is NOT to turn the steak constantly which makes timing impossible to calculate - once is enough. Avoid pressing down on a steak as this expresses moisture.
A reliable traditional test for cooking a medium-rare steak – cooked through but with a nicely pink interior – is to watch carefully for the first globules of blood to appear on the upper surface. Turn the steak immediately and cook until the same thing happens again; remove onto a warm but not hot plate and let rest for three to five minutes before serving.
Resting time is as important as cooking time, as this allows the juices brought to the surface by the high cooking heat to sink back into the flesh, which also relaxes and becomes more tender.
Experts in the meat trade suggest a steak should rest for as long as it has been cooked.
In the end, only careful observation of your technique and the results can teach you to cook steaks the way you like best.