Mention "beef tenderloin" around most people and those salivary glands instantly start to kick in. Also known as filet mignon or, when you get a center-cut roast, a chateaubriand, no cut has such a reputation as being "high-end" as the tenderloin, and it carries a price tag to match. What a tenderloin has in buttery tenderness, it lacks in big beefy flavor, but with summer now upon us, we have a the best device to tackle the entire cut at once and add plenty of flavor along the way: the grill. And boy, will you ever be loved by the backyard crowds when they see one of these over the flames.
Which Tenderloin Should You Buy?
In prepping to grill one myself, I first talked to the Sultan of Steakhimself, Mark Pastore, President of Pat LaFrieda Meat. His number one piece of advice: Don't skimp on quality—this isn't the place to go cheap.
As muscles work, they produce myoglobin and fat, where most of the flavor we associate with beef comes from. The tenderloin is a relatively unused muscle that is cut from the loin section of the cow, just inside the rib cage along the spinal column, and since it doesn't see much action, it contains less myoglobin and fat than other cuts. This makes for incredibly tender meat, but without that big, beefy flavor. So while any tenderloin will be tender, Choice or Prime grade roasts from an Angus or heritage breed steer will have comparatively more marbled fat, and thus, more flavor to speak of. Ask your butcher for the best they've got.
Mark graciously provided me with a 6 and 1/3-pound Choice Premium Black Angus whole beef tenderloin from Creekstone Farms to demonstrate grill roasting. It was a perfect example of what a great tenderloin should be.
Prepping the Tenderloin
Although any tenderloin is going to be relatively expensive, you can save a few bucks by buying a PSMO tenderloin. That's short for Peeled, Silver Skin, and Side Muscle Left On. This'll save you a few bucks along with providing you with a few extra scraps for other cooking projects. Your butcher will most likely have these in vacuum packs.
Once you have the PSMO tenderloin in hand, it's time to start breaking it down. Start by cutting loose the side muscle that runs almost the length of the entire cut. From there you can start cutting away the remaining fat and trimming off the silver skin by gently gliding your knife right underneath it, trying keep as much meat in place as possible.
Now you have a completely trimmed tenderloin, but you'll notice that one end is thicker than the other. For even cooking, we want an even thickness. To create this, take the smaller end of the tenderloin and fold it under by about 2 inches. Tie this in place with a couple pieces of butcher twine, along with any other loose meat created by trimming the fat, and you're done.
Grilling this Sucker
Now on to the whole reason we're here, grilling this massive piece of meat. Without a lot of internal fat or connective tissue, tenderloin will always be tender, but since fat is an insulator that slows cooking, lean tenderloin is also quite easy to overcook, leading to dry meat. The most important thing to keep in mind is slow, even cooking. To get the meat seared and up to medium-rare evenly, it'll need to be grill-roasted.
Grill-roasting involves building a two-zone indirect fire—that's a fire in which most of the coals are piled up on one side of the grill to create a hot zone, while the rest create a cooler zone on the other side.
At least 45 minutes prior to grilling, you should salt the tenderloin and allow it to rest at room temperature (see more on the science of salting here). I like to take mine out of the fridge and salt it before I start prepping the fire, so the tenderloin and grill are ready at about the same time. A big fatty ribeye might not need any additional fat before hitting the grill, but a lean tenderloin needs a thin coating of vegetable oil (along with some black pepper) to promote even browning and prevent the roast from drying out as you sear each side to develop the crust, about 2 minutes on each of the 4 sides.
Here's another reason to opt for the grill vs. cooking it indoors: The final prepped tenderloin is around 18 inches long. Try searing that in a 12-inch skillet!
After searing, I transfer the roast to the cooler side of the grill, cover it, and allow the meat to cook over indirect heat until it hits the desired final temperature—120°F for rare, 130°F for medium-rare, and so on. This will take anywhere from 15-25 minutes, with one turn of the meat during that time to maintain the evenness we're working towards. I don't recommend cooking tenderloin anywhere above medium. Without any fat to lubricate the meat, it becomes quite dry and almost chalky tasting.
Once it hits your desired doneness, transfer the tenderloin to a cutting board and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. During this time, the core temperature will continue to rise by a few degrees, while the rest of the meat will slowly relax, allowing it to retain more juices during carving.
Although I pulled my tenderloin at 125°F, I underestimated the carryover cooking for such a large one, and it ended up straying from medium rare into medium territory. But it was of little consequence. The monster cut was gone in minutes, and I relished in the accolades that were pouring about its tenderness and excellent flavor. Little did my guests know that all it takes is a great piece of beef and just a bit of technique.