Well, so far America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School has gotten me through sautéing, cutting chicken cutlets, and surviving an America’s Test Kitchen-style taste test. But all of that does not make me a skillet-cooking pro — at least not yet. Now it’s time to step it up a notch, because while sautéing is great for thin cuts of chicken or fish, it won’t quite do the trick for thicker cuts of meat like steaks. That’s where the next lesson in my Secrets to Sautéing course comes in handy: pan-searing. So now it’s time for me to head to the stove once again and try my hand at this lesson’s required recipe assignment, Pepper-Crusted Filet Mignon with Blue Cheese-Chive Butter.
No chicken here!
If you’ve been following along with my cooking school adventures, you might be familiar with my fear of the smoke detector. Unfortunately, that’s not my only kitchen fear — I’m also scared to death of screwing up a great steak. So I made sure to pay close attention during the video tutorial, as cooking school host Bridget Lancaster walked through the cooking method which the pros in the Test Kitchen rely on for a perfect pan-sear. The method she taught not only gives you that nice, deep brown crust on the outside of the steak, but it also ensures that the meat is cooked to the proper temperature without the risk of being overdone.
And just like when I took on my first required recipe, I watched — and rewatched — the video of Bridget walking through the recipe to make sure I was prepared for each step in advance. Then I got all of my ingredients and equipment together, ready to take on some mighty fine cuts of filet mignon.
All about the details…
I will admit I was a little intimidated by this dish — there was the butter to get ready, the peppercorn crust to get just right, and hitting that perfect medium-rare mark on the inside.
While I’ve learned the fun of pan sauces when working with my sautéed dishes, this time I’m making a “compound butter” instead — a smooth blend of blue cheese, chives, and butter — which will melt into the steaks while they rest before serving. While the butter and cheese were softening, I needed to get to work on the peppercorns.
With a dish that sounds this delicious, your regular ground black pepper is just not going to cut it. Instead I needed to crack whole peppercorns. Seems simple, right? And it sure looked easy enough when Bridget was doing it on screen. But once I got started, it didn’t take too long before I was wishing I hit the gym a little bit more often. What a workout! Once I made it through all of the peppercorns, I needed to let them simmer in olive oil to bring out that great peppery flavor while also helping to temper the bite of the peppercorns so that they don’t overpower the meat itself.
Once the peppercorn mixture was ready, I needed to coat the filets and let them sit for an hour underneath a piece of plastic wrap to allow the seasoning to really work into the meat. I’m not a very patient person by nature, so this was not exactly my favorite part of the recipe but I kept thinking about how delicious the finished product will be in order to make it through the rest of the steps.
Doing the two-step…
After the hour had passed, I was about ready to dance over to the stove to get the steaks cooking. First, I needed to sear the steaks on the stove and then I needed to move them to the oven for just a few minutes for them to finish cooking.
Just like sautéing, leaving the steaks alone in the skillet was essential for that perfectly browned crust to develop. This time around, the waiting wasn’t what had me on edge — it was all about the peppercorns. If they weren’t adhered properly, the peppercorns would be left in the skillet and my steaks would be left with a spotty crust. And nobody likes a spotty crust.
However, I discovered that my patience was well-served as I got ready to transfer the steaks to the oven. The steaks came out of the pan with a crispy, deep brown crust — peppercorns perfectly in place. While the steaks were finishing up in the oven, I got my instant-read thermometer ready to go. With all of the work I put in getting to this part, there was no way I was going to risk my steaks cooking beyond medium rare.
Worth the wait…
I had my butter mixture and a piece of foil ready to go as soon as my handy new thermometer gave me a reading of 125 degrees — just what I needed for that perfectly pink medium-rare inside. I transferred the steaks to a rack and spooned the butter on top in order to melt into the steaks while they rested.
These last five minutes may have been the longest part of my afternoon. While I tried to keep myself busy cleaning up the stove and counter, I just couldn’t wait to take my first bite. And then, it was time to dig in.
Wow. Just wow. There really are no words to describe how amazing that steak tasted. In fact, I think I may have even giggled while enjoying that first bite. I wasn’t exactly prepared to share, but I’m glad I did because if there is one thing I enjoyed more than taking my first bite it was watching my friends’ reactions when they got their chance to try my latest success.
The final step of the assignment required sending the pictures and my comments to my instructor, David, for his feedback. I thought waiting for the steaks to be ready was tough — waiting for David’s response was driving me crazy. But just as my first bite was worth the wait, so was David’s review. Not only did the pictures make him hungry, but he also assured me that the peppercorns were properly adhered and the meat was “cooked to perfection.” And as if that wasn’t enough, he even stated that my dish was “about as near to perfection as you can get.” I’m pretty sure I had a smile plastered to my face for the rest of the day, maybe even the next two days.
While this assignment was all about mastering this dish, I now know that I can spend a little bit more money on such a great cut of meat without living in fear of screwing it up. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already planning on making this dish again.
Now it’s your turn!
Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking. But it’s not much fun cooking alone. So I went through some of our cookbooks, looking for the perfect recipe for you to try at home to test your pan-searing skills. Go ahead — give our Simple Pan-Seared Salmon a try. And don’t forget to let us know how it goes!
What is one type of food, or cooking technique, that you’d most like to gain confidence in?