Feature

Beef tenderloin: A classic elevated by the perfect pepper crust

A simple pepper crust seems like the perfect preparation for beef tenderloin, but there are challenges to overcome.

Black pepper is “such a great complement to beef” that you’d think a simple pepper crust would be the perfect preparation for beef tenderloin, said Celeste Rogers in Cook’s Illustrated. But there are challenges to overcome: First, it’s not easy to make pepper stick to a beef cut that’s normally tied before roasting and sliced before serving. Second, if the crust sticks too well, the pepper flavor is likely to be so pungent that it’ll leave you and your dinner guests wincing and reaching for water.

The recipe that I’ve developed calls for a rub that uses baking soda to give the meat a tackier surface. Sugar offsets some of the pungency of the pepper, but I also simmer the peppercorns in oil to cut their heat, then add nutmeg and orange zest to the crust to restore two particular flavor compounds that the pepper loses in the process.

The result might be the ideal special-occasion entrée. Tenderloin roasts are renowned both for their “buttery texture” and, unfortunately, for “the meekness of their beef flavor.” A gorgeous pepper crust provides all the flavor embellishment you’ll need to overcome that one glaring weakness of this luxury cut. To really dress things up, try creating an accompanying sauce made with wine, broth, and a citrusy fruit juice.

Recipe of the week

Pepper-crusted beef tenderloin

  • 4½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1½ tsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • 9 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ cup coarsely cracked black peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp finely grated orange zest
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • One 6-lb whole beef tenderloin, trimmed

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine salt, sugar, and baking soda in a bowl; set aside. Heat 6 tablespoons oil and peppercorns in a small saucepan over low heat until faint bubbles appear. Continue to cook at a bare simmer, swirling pan occasionally, until pepper is fragrant, 7 to 10 minutes. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain cooking oil from peppercorns. Discard cooking oil and mix peppercorns with remaining 3 tablespoons oil, orange zest, and nutmeg.

Set tenderloin on a sheet of plastic wrap. Sprinkle salt mixture evenly over the surface of the tenderloin and rub into the meat until the surface is tacky. Tuck the tail end of the tenderloin under about 6 inches to create a more even shape. Rub the top and side of tenderloin with peppercorn mixture, pressing to make sure peppercorns adhere. Spray three 12-inch lengths of kitchen twine with vegetable oil spray; tie head of the tenderloin to maintain an even shape, spacing twine at 2-inch intervals.

Transfer the prepared tenderloin to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, keeping the tail end tucked under. Roast until the thickest part of the meat registers about 120 degrees for rare and about 125 degrees for medium-rare—about 60 to 70 minutes. 

Transfer the tenderloin to a carving board and let it rest for 30 minutes. Remove twine and slice meat into ½-inch-thick slices. Serves 10–12.

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