It’s that time of year when everyone is thinking about celebratory dinners that include extravagances like tenderloin (filet mignon).
While it’s true that beef tenderloin is tender, boneless and lean and shaped for slicing, there are many more options to consider for a holiday roast. In this post I’ll give you the full rundown off beef tenderloin substitutes.
Want to enjoy a fantastic holiday roast beef but spend a bit less and enjoy it more? Here’s your guide.
Why not tenderloin?
Did you know that among the pros–and I’m talking about butchers here–tenderloin is rarely, if ever, a top pick? Most beef experts and chefs consider tenderloin way overrated. Certainly, it is pricey, but that doesn’t tend to impress this group much.
There’s no arguing that this slender cut is the most tender muscles from cattle. But when it comes to flavor, tenderloin doesn’t have any real character that makes beef taste great.
Why? First off, it’s too lean, and second, because the psoas major–the tenderloin–is a supportive muscle. Since the most exercised muscles have the most flavor, tenderloin is relatively mild tasting compared to other cuts–and for a lot more money.
If you’re committed to lean medallions with unbeatable tenderness, you can certainly make tenderloin taste great with a good rub, sauce (or both as in this recipe for porcini-rubbed filet with roasted shallot sauce).
But if you want real value along with decent tenderness along with taste, read on.
Beef tenderloin substitutes
If tenderloin is the most tender cut, what’s the second most tender beef cut? Here’s a list of all roasts ranked in order of tenderness with some notes on the pros and cons of each. (Roast generally meaning a single muscle cut and just to avoid confusion–because there are so many different names for the same cut, I’ve included the latin name.)
Top blade roast
Although it comes from one of the most exercised parts of the animal–the shoulder or chuck–top blade roast (infraspanitus), also known as the flatiron, is just second in tenderness to tenderloin. It is a boneless cut with supreme flavor that you may need to special order. The only downside is a line of gristle running horizontally through the meat, but it’s easy to trim and eat around.
Top sirloin roast
The top sirloin butt (gluteus medius) is from the hip next to the loin. It is typically butchered into steaks. As a roast, the center cut is known as American chateaubriand, a boneless and full-flavored roast. You’ll likely need to special order it from a butcher shop.
Boneless, rib roast (longissimus dorsi) is the cut known as prime rib; with the bone in, it is a standing rib roast. Either way, this is a favorite roast beef cut that is rimmed with fat and may need to be trimmed before cooking. It is also a big cut of meat that can feed a crowd.
Strip loin roast
Also known as top loin (multifidus dorsi), this is a whole boneless roast between the rib and the sirloin. (When cut into steaks, this muscle is known as a New York steak and is the larger muscle on a T-bone or Porterhouse.) Sold bone-in or boneless, strip loin roast has a rounded shape for even cooking and can be cut to feed a few or a crowd.
Sirloin tip roast
Sirloin tip (rectus femoris) is also known as the “knuckle” since it lies between the sirloin and the round sections. It is a modestly tender but beefy roast perfect for a small group. Since it can tend to be dry, this a good roast to stuff and should be cooked at a lower temperature than the more tender cuts above and thinly sliced.
Eye of round roast
A supportive muscle from the upper leg, eye of round roast (semitendinosus) is long and tapered like tenderloin. However, it is even more lean, mild-flavored and can be dry. Well-seasoned, cooked no more than medium-rare, thinly sliced and served with a flavorful sauce or other accompaniments, it can make for an acceptable and inexpensive roast.
Top round roast
The cut typically used for deli roast beef top round (semimembranosus) is a rounded muscle from the upper leg that is moderately tender. It can make for a succulent roast beef supper, especially when cooked with its fat cap–so long as it’s cooked at a low temperature (325°F or less) just to medium-rare and should be served thinly sliced.
Browsing online, you’ll come across several sites and recipes recommending one roast that I would definitely not want to serve for a celebratory meal: rump roast (biceps femoris).
Here’s why: what is sold as rump roast in the U.S. (not the same cut as the Argentinian or British cuts called rump) is from the bottom round or the upper leg and is one of the toughest cuts. The reason I don’t prefer it for a dinner roast is because of the very coarse grain that runs evenly through the muscle that’s somewhat ropy in texture with a lot of chew. Mind you, chewing is a good thing, but rump for a centerpiece roast just doesn’t cut it.
Don’t get me wrong: Cooked at a relatively low heat to a perfect rare or medium rare and sliced very thin (preferably with an electric meat slicer), rump roast makes decent roast beef for sandwiches. I also brine it for corned beef.
How to cook roast beef
Once you have a roast in hand, this next post details the methods for cooking roast beef.
In the meantime, here are three of my most popular roast beef recipes published in Fine Cooking and elsewhere:
- Prime Rib with Mustard and Herb Butter A “genius” boneless rib roast rubbed with seasoned brown butter
- Salt and Pepper Roast Beef with Bearnaise Sauce A whole top loin roast served with a classic sauce
- Roast Beef Stuffed With Quinoa, Spinach, Cranberries A butterflied, stuffed and rolled roast using a top sirloin roast or sirloin tip roast