I serve Steak au Poivre often to guests. If you aren’t familiar with it, steak au Poivre is a French pepper sauce made with lots of coarse ground black peppers and Cognac. Most of the time, it is served over pan-fried filet mignon. This recipe works well whether you pan-fry or grill the steaks.
Au Poivre Ingredients
It only takes a handful of ingredients to make au Poivre. The base is made with butter, black pepper, and finely-minced shallots. It helps to cook the ingredients in a large skillet, preferably a cast-iron pan. However, if you do not have one, this recipe will work in a nonstick pan.
If you do not have shallots, you can substitute sweet onions in their place.
Carefully Add the Cognac
When the shallots are sufficiently wilted, add the Cognac. Be careful because Cognac is very high in alcohol and can ignite and flame in the pan. Many chefs allow the Cognac to flame in commercial kitchens. However, for a home kitchen, you can avoid a flame by slowly pouring a little Cognac into the side of the pan and letting it sizzle. Then add a little more around the outside perimeter of the pan. Repeat until all the Cognac is in the pan. Keep your hand away from the middle of the pan in case the Cognac flames. Either way, have a lid nearby in case you need to smother a flame.
When Cognac flames in a pan, it burns off the alcohol. By pouring a little Cognac and letting it sizzle, you can achieve the same end result. After battling two-foot flames in the kitchen a few times, I started adding the alcohol slowly, letting it react with the hot pan. This method produces a pleasant-tasting sauce. On the other hand, if you try to cool the pan completely and then add the Cognac, the result can leave a harsh alcohol taste in the au Poivre.
Adding the Broth
Add the broth to the hot pan and simmer it for a few minutes until the sauce reduces. Use a spoon to scrape across the pan to tell if the sauce has reduced enough to add the cream. When the broth is first added to the pan, the scrape fills with liquid immediately (above left photo). After cooking for a few minutes, the scrape remains visible for a little while (above right photo).
After the broth has reduced sufficiently, the scrape across the pan closes slowly, allowing you to scrape all the way across without filling in (above photo). At this point, the sauce is ready for the cream.
Adding the Cream
After pouring in the cream, simmer the sauce for a few minutes until it reduces and thickens. To determine when it is ready, use the same scrape test. In the beginning, the scrape immediately fills as you pull the spoon across the pan (above right photo).
After cooking the sauce for a few minutes, the scrape stays open for only half of the pan (above left photo). Soon after, with additional simmering, the scrape stays open longer (above right photo).
When the sauce is finally ready, the scrape is wide and stays open all the way across the pan, closing very slowly. The sauce is now ready to serve.
Making Sauce Ahead of Time
The au Poivre can be made ahead of time if you plan to grill the steaks. To refresh it after it cools, add a little more cream and heat it. If you pan-fry the steaks in the skillet, add the au Poivre ingredients to the drippings and cook it. The recipe has instructions for grilling steaks. Look in the recipe notes for instructions for pan-frying steaks.