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Chateaubriand: An Elegant Holiday Dinner

Whether it’s Chateaubriand or Beef Wellington, learn how to cook beef tenderloin and put together a sumptuous Christmas dinner menu, including accompaniments.

Even if you don’t otherwise tend to cook fancy food, Christmas dinner is where you like to pull out all the stops. Turkey? We had enough of that a month ago for Thanksgiving dinner…not to mention sandwiches and soup for days afterward. For the most important family gathering of the year, we prefer to dig into rich, juicy beef.

Now, this isn’t the time of year where the guys get together, crack open beers and throw steaks on the grill. This is white-tablecloth, fine-china, silver-and-crystal time. And the only thing that will do is a roast. Not a pot roast, either, but a really great cut of beef. For many, the ultimate Christmas roast is a bone-in prime rib, but if you’re the type who really loves filet mignon, you can’t go wrong with chateaubriand.

Medium-rare Tenderloin for Chateaubriand on a wooden serving tray, with brussel sprouts and a glass of wine.

Beef Tenderloin: Why Is It Called “Chateaubriand”?

Well, they’re not really the same thing. The tenderloin, or psoas major, is the entire muscle itself. Cylindrical in shape and tapered at the front end, it is the least-worked muscle in the body, which is why it is so incredibly tender—hence the name tenderloin—and it yields several cuts.

The filet mignon is an individual steak cut from the tapered end of the tenderloin. It is generally cut thick: sometimes as thick as its diameter. The larger filets, cut from the thickest part of the tenderloin, are called tournedos in French. (Most Americans do not use the term tournedos, and apply the term filet mignon to any tenderloin steak.) When the thick center part is left intact and not cut into filets, it is called chateaubriand.

Legend has it the name chateaubriand originated when a chef named Monmireil prepared the dish for François René de Chateaubriand, a French nobleman, writer and politician considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature. Poet and dramatist Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, was so impressed by René that he once penned, “To be Chateaubriand or nothing.” As it happens, that’s exactly how many beef lovers feel about the tenderloin.

The Dictionary of Food: International Cooking Terms from A to Z defines chateaubriand as “A large steak cut from the thickest part of a fillet of beef. Generally grilled to serve two persons or the whole thick end roasted.”

Yes, chateaubriand is different things to different people. Some recipes call for a 10-ounce cut as a romantic dinner for two. (That’s basically a two-inch-thick filet mignon.) For a Christmas dinner serving a number of people, a chateaubriand roast is available in sizes from two to six pounds. Pick the size you need to serve your guests, and let’s get cooking!

How to Cook Beef Tenderloin

Chateaubriand is an expensive cut of meat, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating. (This isn’t rocket science.) We’re looking to achieve two things with our roast: a nice color on the outside that helps enhance the flavors, and an even internal temperature to your liking.

There is some dispute, even among professionals, when establishing doneness guidelines. In our opinion, 130° is about medium rare, 145° is about medium, 160° is about medium well. (Note: The USDA recommends steaks and roasts be cooked to 145°F and then rested for at least 3 minutes.) We’ve found our best results when the roast is removed from the oven about 5 to 10 degrees lower than the desired temp. For example, for 130° internal temp, remove your roast when the internal temp has reached anywhere between 120° and 125°, then let it rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes. The resting period makes a big difference; 30 minutes is much better than 15.

Make sure your meat thermometer is accurate; you can test this in a bowl of ice water (32°F). Don’t be afraid to start checking the internal temp 75% of the way through to see if you are ahead or behind. Remember, these roasts are fairly consistent, but some variation can exist in thickness and conformation, so not every roast of equivalent size will cook in the exact same time.

Here’s how to roast your chateaubriand:

  1. Keep the roast frozen until 2 days before preparation, then thaw in the refrigerator.
  2. The day of the event, leave your roast out for up to 2 hours to allow it to come to room temperature and ensure even cooking.
  3. Preheat your oven to 500°F. This may seem a bit hot, but it helps develop the caramelized appearance and flavor on the outside of the meat.
  4. Make a simple seasoning rub of freshly cracked black pepper, kosher salt and garlic powder. Rub all over roast.
  5. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Roast uncovered for the first 15 minutes, then turn it down to 350° and let it roast until desired internal temperature is reached (see above). To help you plan, it will be roughly 14 minutes per pound for rare; roughly 17 for medium rare; roughly 19 for medium. Again, these times are approximate and your best weapon is a meat thermometer. Go by temperature, not time.
  6. Tent the roast with foil and let it rest at least 15 minutes. It will continue to cook during this time, allowing juices to permeate the meat. Once the temperature comes back down to 120°F, it’s ready to carve and serve.

Beef Wellington: Pot Pie Gone Posh

If you want to dress up your chateaubriand just a bit, one show-stopper of a traditional recipe is Beef Wellington. Essentially, it’s chateaubriand coated in mushroom duxelles and liver pâté and rolled in puff pastry. There are many fabulous recipes for this classic if you want to spend the time. Chefs Tyler Florence and Gordon Ramsay use prosciutto instead of pâté de foie gras; food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt uses both in his “ultimate” rendition.

If you don’t want to spend the time making this complex recipe but want to celebrate a special occasion in style, individual portions of Beef Wellington (and other Wellingtons) are available online.

Sides, Etc.: The Chateaubriand Menu

So what do you serve to complement this fabulous roast?

Side: The classic accompaniment to chateaubriand is chateau potatoes—potatoes sautéed in lots of butter and seasoned with parsley. To save time and add more robust flavors, you could always serve a couple of comforting heat-and-serve casseroles from a quality supplier.

Condiment: The original chateaubriand sauce involves a series of reductions: white wine with chopped shallots, thyme, bay leaf and mushroom trimmings reduced by two thirds, then brown veal or beef stock equal to the original wine added and all reduced by half, then finished with parsleyed butter and chopped tarragon. Alternately, many chefs like to serve chateaubriand with the much more common (and utterly delicious) béarnaise sauce.

Dessert: Naturally, you’ll want something sweet to end your meal on a properly festive note. Save time by purchasing a high-quality handcrafted dessert online—preferably something chocolatey to complement the red wine you’ll want to serve with your roast.

What Wine Goes with Chateaubriand?

As with any cut of beef, red wine is best. And since chateaubriand is a French dish, we would naturally gravitate toward French wines.

Tenderloin has a lighter flavor and less fat than the “beefier” cuts like prime rib, so a dry Burgundy (pinot noir) is an excellent choice. It has a lighter body than the big, tannic cabernet sauvignons. Also, many pinot noirs tend to have smoky, earthy notes that complement beef…especially if they’re served with similarly earthy foods like mushrooms.

On the other hand, since your chateaubriand is probably going to be served with a robust sauce—and especially if you go the Wellington route—a big Bordeaux-style wine would be perfectly appropriate. Bordeaux wines are mainly cabernet sauvignon and/or merlot, with other grapes sometimes added for depth. True Bordeaux wines tend to be expensive (as do true Burgundies), but one can find excellent bargains on wines from other regions that mimic their style.

If you like the big wines, a cab/merlot blend called Meritage (a marketing term that rhymes with heritage) is California’s version of Bordeaux, and Argentina produces some excellent malbec wines (a grape originally from the Bordeaux region) that are stellar with beef.

For those who prefer the less tannic pinot noirs, northern California and especially Oregon produce pinots that rival the Burgundy region in quality, even if they can’t duplicate the classic terroir. Many of these can be costly as well, but a good deal can easily be found for under $20. Just don’t skimp for this special meal; pinot noir is especially difficult to grow, and it is nearly impossible to find a budget-priced pinot that is any good. (Same with cabernet.)

Now that you’re armed with some information and tips, put your invitation list and your grocery list together. Order the proper size tenderloin for chateaubriand, and welcome family and friends to your very own chateau for a dinner they’ll always remember. And don’t be surprised if they leave quoting Victor Hugo.

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