Beef Wellington is many things to many people: a showstopper centerpiece for special occasion dining, a rite of passage for an aspiring chef, the most epic gourmet expression of a mushroom-topped hamburger, a tribute dish named for a British war hero, and something you’d love to eat but would never dream to attempt…right?
Well, maybe reconsider that last point, because one thing beef Wellington is not, is actually all that difficult to prepare. Don’t get me wrong—care must be taken, but no special equipment or exacting skill is required beyond the basics of cookery. Only patience is mandatory, and an understanding of the function of each of the many layers, which we’ll unpack here with tips for dealing with them from the inside out.
The Heart of the Matter: Beef Tenderloin
The tenderloin comes from an area below the rib cage that doesn’t see much muscular activity, resulting in a narrow strip of heaven that is about as tender as meat gets. But here’s the tenderloin’s dirty little secret: it lacks in the succulent marbling of something like a ribeye. While tenderloin soars in the texture department, its flavor is rather on the subdued side. Enter beef Wellington. Take that delicate cut and literally wrap it up with sharp, rich, and umami elements and blanket the whole thing in a buttery crust for the best of both worlds: texture and flavor.
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For best results, ask your butcher for a center cut of tenderloin of about two to three pounds (unless you’ve got a really, really long kitchen counter and a whole lot of pastry). Have it trimmed of silverskin and tied it up by inch intervals into a tidy package so that it keeps its shape. A generous seasoning of salt and pepper and an even sear on all sides of the beef tease out as much of its natural meatiness as possible.
The Sharp: Mustard
Next we give the Wellington its bite and tang with a generous slather of mustard after searing. This is not the moment for your beloved, nostalgic yellow stuff. Stick to the classics: Dijon, spicy brown, or hot English mustard are preferred, but if you wince at that level of sharpness, mellower whole grain is a fine substitute. Horseradish would also be excellent in this layer, either in addition to or instead of. Don’t be afraid to be generous with your slather—this is the only point to achieve enough zip and tang to balance out all the other rich and savory components.
The Umami: Mushroom Duxelles
Duxelles (pronounced duck-SELL) is a fine mince made primarily of mushrooms, also including shallots and herbs. This is the layer with the most room for culinary creativity: One may choose from a plethora of mushroom types—everything from porcini to button—as well as various herbs and spirits, and the occasional wild card component such as soy sauce or cream.
What you’re capitalizing on in this layer is that earthy, savory element that delivers a tsunami of flavor to compensate for the beef’s subtlety. You need not stick to one single beef Wellington recipe for any given component, and especially not for the duxelles; feel free to pick and choose from among many for the elements that appeal to you the most. I’m partial to a blend of mushrooms and an oxidized spirit for deglazing such as sherry or madeira.
The only musts for this layer are using a food processor in order to chop your mushrooms (unless you are incredibly meticulous and patient) and cooking down the mixture to near dryness so that it functions more like a pâte than a sauce.
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Not just for mushrooms but for anything you need in small, consistent bits.
The Now-You’re-Just-Showing-Off: Foie Gras
This is a largely optional layer, and not every Wellington recipe calls for it. But if you have the wherewithal, and access to foie gras, or a liver pâte, or even bone marrow, why not go for it? You’re already making a beef-friggin’-Wellington. Your friends need not know it’s not such a big deal. Fat is the delivery mechanism for flavor, and foie brings it in spades, as well as even more rich texture and more meatiness. I repeat: beef. Wellington. The foie puts it into overdrive. Ask your purveyor with help in deveining the lobes, then slice into half inch thick slices and sear on both sides, then slice lengthwise again for ultra thin slices that seem willing to wrap themselves around a larger entity.
The Seal-The-Deal: Prosciutto
Probably the least ostentatious of all the layers, the humble prosciutto melts into the background and functions here both as a casing and as a barrier between all those rich elements and the pastry, in order for the carefully assembled layers to hold it together while they get rolled up in that buttery goodness. If you find that this is just one meaty element too many (really?), you can substitute crepes. Or if you feel the need to combat a mostly monochromatic Wellington, a large-leaf hearty green such as cabbage or spinach can also stand in here. Either way you’ll want to be working with the longest, un-torn pieces possible to ensure maximum structural integrity.
The Whole Package: Puff Pastry
This will be the face of your Wellington to the world. With or without a geometric or pastoral pastry design, you’ll want to look for a high-quality, all-butter puff pastry, but if conventional is all that’s available to you, that shouldn’t be the reason not to try this. Phyllo dough can also be substituted—what you lose in pillowy richness, you get back with a little extra flaky crunch. If you’re the kind of turned up epicurean that simply must have every element made from scratch, then by all means, make your own puff pastry. In any case, make sure your pastry is completely thawed, but still cold before beginning.
The Ta-Da Moment: Assembly
Now that you’ve got all of your components sorted, it’s just a simple layering and rolling process: a large sheet of plastic wrap, slices of carefully “shingled” prosciutto, a spread of mushroom duxelles, ultra thin slices of foie gras, and finally the seared and slathered tenderloin. Rolled into place and refrigerated in plastic wrap to meld together, the tidy package gets its final roll or tuck into the pastry and into the oven for less than an hour for a beautiful medium rare. Whether you tell your friends and family that assembly took no more than five minutes with nary a curse uttered is entirely up to you. Let them believe Gordon Ramsay himself put you up to it.
Get our Beef Wellington recipe.