Published March 1, 2006. Web Exclusive.
Should you spend $80 a pound on prime filets?
Like it or hate it, there's no disputing beef tenderloin's cachet, thanks in large part to the distinctively high prices it commands. Supermarket meat counters are bad enough ($15 a pound at the low end), but mail-order filets mignons can run as high as $80 for two 8-ounce steaks. We ordered 34 steaks from five mail-order retailers to see how much better these cash cows tasted.
Outrageous price aside, we identified two problems. First, in most cases retailers feature USDA Prime steaks, hence the high price. The USDA grades—Prime is the highest, followed by Choice and then Select—are based on the percentage of intramuscular fat, or marbling, in the steak. (When that wispy network of fat cooks and melts, it leaves behind rich flavor and a more tender texture.) Marbling is a huge bonus when it comes to a rib-eye or a strip steak, but tenderloin is so lean and tender to begin with that marbling yields little in the way of improvement—at least as far as our tasters were concerned. Packaging was another problem. Most of our steaks were packed with dry ice and frozen solid. Freezing creates ice crystals in the meat that act like little tenderizers, making these already tender steaks seem mushy.
Our favorite filets were sold for $19.99 per pound, or about $40 for a dinner for four. The two mail-order steaks that weren't frozen solid on arrival tied for second place. For those prices, it's cheaper to hit a swanky steakhouse—and you won't have to do the dishes after dinner.