Like most classic dishes, steak au poivre has as many versions as there are colors in a jumbo box of crayons. Food historians think that the dish originated in the Normandy region of France in the 19th century. Lore has it that it was a favorite late night meal in bistros and bordellos due to the reported aphrodisiac qualities of pepper. By the early 1900’s the dish was popular in Paris and Monte Carlo restaurants, yet there’s no shortage of controversy there either. Several French chefs of the era laid claim to Steak au Poivre. The popularity remains today and you are likely to see a version of a pepper crusted steak with covered with a sauce made in the same pan on every American steak house menu and most French bistros.
Traditionally, Steak au Poivre is made with beef tenderloin (filet mignon) but rib eye, New York strip or sirloin steaks are also options. Lesser cuts of meat may even be improved by the complex sauce. The meat is crusted with cracked peppercorns (either all black or mixed) and then seared in a little butter and oil in a very hot pan, cooked to temperature, and removed from the pan. While resting, a pan sauce is made in the same pan used to cook the steak.
It’s with the sauce that the recipes tend to diverge; some call for brandy (usually cognac), some wine, some butter. Shallots are often included but not always, as is a beef stock or demi-glace. The inclusion of cream (or not) is the biggest divide; most modern recipes and restaurants include it, but classic French cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child do not. Some say that cream mellows the pepper flavor while others contend it disguises it. In the recipe below, I’ll give you both options.
Pepper is important. The sauce can be made using only black peppercorns, but the addition of different colors (white, green, pink) adds interest and a complexity to the flavor. Whatever you do, don’t make it with ground pepper like you’d find in a table shaker. Start with whole peppercorns and crush them either with a mallet, mortar and pestle, or a brief turn in a spice grinder or food processor.
To get the best version of Steak au Poivre, use a cast iron or stainless steel pan, not a nonstick pan. You are looking for the “Maillard reaction” when cooking your steak. This is the caramelization which occurs on the outside of meat seared in hot pan. In other words, it’s that nice brown crust you get on the outside of the meat which gives it flavor. Without proper heat, the meat will not brown properly.