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.
How to make Steak Au Poivre (steak with peppercorn sauce).
Cook Time20 minutesmins
Course: Main Course
Keyword: peppercorn, sauce, steak
2each8 oz steaksFilet Mignon, Rib Eyes, Sirloin, NY Strip, etc.
2tablespoonsmixed color whole peppercorns
½cupbeef stock or veal demi-glace
¼cupcream OR 2 tablespoons butter
Let the steaks come to room temperature for about 30 minutes outside of the refrigerator before cooking.
Crack the peppercorns by crushing them with a mortar and pestle or placing them in a clean dish towel and pressing down on them with a heavy skillet or hitting them with a mallet. They can also be put in a spice/coffee grinder (but be careful not to over grind with this option). The pepper should be cracked into tiny pieces, but not finely ground.
Spread the cracked peppercorns on a plate. Pat the steaks dry, season with salt on both sides, and then press the steaks into the pepper, coating both sides.
Heat a heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium heat and then add the oil and one tablespoon of butter. Add the steaks to the pan and allow them to sear on one side for 4-5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and sear the other side for 3-4 minutes. For rare, the internal temperature should be 125 -130 degrees and they will come up to medium rare while resting. To get closer to medium, remove from the pan at 135 degrees.
When the steaks are done, remove them from the pan and place on a warmed plate. They will continue to cook while resting.
Once you remove the steaks from the pan, keep the heat on and add the minced shallots to the pan. Stir the shallots for about a minute to cook them.
Add the cognac and deglaze the pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the cognac by half and then add the beef stock or veal demi-glace.
Reduce the sauce again by half. At this point, depending on your preference, add either the 2 ounces of cream or the 2 tablespoons of butter to the reduction and stir briefly to emulsify the sauce. Remove from heat.
Spoon the sauce over the warm steaks and serve immediately.