Culinary Arts

10 Essential Ingredients for French Cooking: French Cooking Fundamentals for Making 15 Traditional French Meals

Written by MasterClass

Aug 6, 2019 • 6 min read

From the haute cuisine of Paris restaurants to countryside peasant dishes, France has one of the most revered culinary reputations in the world. France’s ingredients, cooking styles, and appreciation for flavors have influenced culinary trends for centuries.

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What Is French Cuisine?

French cuisine consists of the traditional meals and methods of cooking unique to France. Though styles and recipes may vary between regions, French cuisine has signature ingredients used across the country as well as meals that have become synonymous with the gastronomy of France, like coq au vin and quiche.

A Brief History of French Cuisine

Food became a major part of French culture in medieval times, when the aristocracy ate extravagant feasts inspired by Italian cuisine. In the 1600s, the French began to use native ingredients, like cheese and wine, which established a new identity for their cuisine.

After the French Revolution of 1789, when the working class revolted against the rising cost of bread, a wider variety of food was accessible to all, not just the ruling class. Restaurants emerged and French cuisine began to flourish as new recipes and styles were born. By the 1900s, as transportation connected the country, regional specialties became national dishes.

Today, French cooking is a mix of centuries-old peasant dishes, like ratatouille, to the haute cuisine of French chefs. Culinary traditions remain rooted in the basics: eating what is fresh and in season, a philosophy that has that inspired legions of cooks and recipes around the world. French Cuisine has been recognized as a cultural heritage by the United Nations.

Meats, cheeses, and bread on black background

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10 Traditional French Ingredients

Though French cooking has an air of sophistication, its roots are steeped in a tradition of creating savory meals with rudimentary ingredients, most of which can be found in any grocery store. Below you’ll find 10 essential ingredients of French cuisine.

  1. Olive oil. A culinary staple that starts many French dishes, olive oil has myriad uses, most of which are documented in our complete guide.
  2. Dijon mustard. This slightly spicy mustard is used to thicken a marinade or emulsify a vinaigrette.
  3. Fleur de sel. Traditionally from Brittany, fleur de sel is large salt crystals that form as seawater evaporates. Fleur de sel is sprinkled atop a finished dish.
  4. Crème fraîche. This rich garnish is heavy cream mixed with buttermilk. It is used in soups and sauces, and as a topping for something sweet, like a bowl of fruit.
  5. Truffles. This fungus, related to mushrooms, grow in the shade of oak trees in the French countryside and are used to flavor cooking oils and dishes.
  6. Herbes de provence. Fragrant, dried herbs from Provence like rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, and tarragon are combined and used to season savory dishes like poultry and roasted vegetables.
  7. Shallots. In the onion and garlic family, shallots have a milder taste and are used in similar ways as onions in cooking.
  8. French bread. The French have a long history with bread, from baguettes to buttery, flaky croissants, and no French-inspired kitchen would be complete without a fresh loaf.
  9. Wine. France has one of the most productive wine regions in the world. Red and white wine is a beverage that is also used to simmer meats and create rich sauces.
  10. French cheeses. The French produce and eat more cheese per person than in any other country. Known as fromage in French, varieties include camembert, Brie, and Roquefort.

15 Traditional French Dishes

French food is characterized by simple ingredients cooked in ways that will intensify and highlight flavors. Here are 15 of France’s most popular meals.

  1. Ratatouille. This Provençal dish (from Provence) is a colorful medley of vegetables, like eggplant, zucchini, onion, peppers, and garlic, that create a thick stew.
  2. Quiche. Quiche is a savory egg dish baked into a pastry crust. The most famous is Quiche Lorraine, a warm pie of eggs, bacon, onion, gruyere cheese, cream, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
  3. Crepes. These thin pancakes are rolled into tubes. Crepes can be filled with a sweet spread like jam, custard, or chocolate, or served as a savory dish with heartier food like ratatouille, ham, or eggs. Learn more about making crepes and different crepe filling here.
  4. Salade niçoise. This classic French salad is from Nice, on the southern coast of France. Hard-boiled eggs, tuna, olives, and anchovies, and raw vegetables, like green beans, are mixed with lettuce. Learn more about Niçoise salad here.
  5. Terrine. A terrine is a loaf of ground meat, ground organ meat, seafood, or vegetables, seasoned with herbs that is cooked in a ceramic vessel also called a terrine. A terrine might be topped with a gelatin layer or cooked in a puff pastry.
  6. Pâté. This is a type of meat terrine made from ground meat or organ meat, most often liver. It is smooth, with a mousse-like consistency, and served with bread.
  7. Coq au vin. This classic chicken dish from Burgundy literally means “rooster in wine.” Pieces of bone-in chicken are braised in red wine with a little brandy, pearl onions, mushrooms, and carrots for a rich stew. You can find a traditional French coq au vin recipe here.
  8. Cassoulet. This French casserole has several varieties depending on the region it is from. The basic recipe calls for white beans mixed with sausage and confit, a duck or goose slowly roasted in fat at a low temperature, a style of cooking popular in the southwest of France.
  9. Bouillabaisse. From the coastal city of Marseille, bouillabaisse is a stew made from several species of Mediterranean rockfish. The stock is made with onions, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil. It is seasoned with saffron, sea salt, fennel, and bouquet garni, bundled herbs including bay, thyme, and parsley. Several species of fish are added and boiled in the broth. It is served with garlic mayonnaise called rouille.
  10. Boeuf bourguignon. Another dish from Burgundy, this famous stew starts with beef braised in red wine (a red Burgundy, preferably) with onions, carrots, garlic, mushrooms, bacon, and bouquet garni.
  11. Souffle. Dating back to the eighteenth century, a souffle is made by combining a base of egg yolks and sweet or savory ingredients, like chocolate for a sweet souffle or vegetables for a savory one, with beaten egg whites. Air bubbles in the egg whites expand during cooking, giving a souffle that classic, billowy top. Try Gordon Ramsay’s raspberry soufflé recipe here.
  12. French onion soup. This hot soup is a bistro classic: brown onions caramelized in butter, then simmered in broth. What makes this soup so famous is the final step: creating a cheesy crust by broiling each soup bowl in the oven topped with toasted baguette and gruyere.
  13. Foie gras. French for fatty liver, foie gras is tenderized goose liver served most often in a pâté. It is a rich and buttery delicacy served as an appetizer, usually spread on a baguette.
  14. Chocolate mousse. Chocolate mousse is a staple on any French dessert table. It is a smooth and creamy blend of chocolate, eggs, and heavy cream. Try Chef Dominique Ansel’s chocolate mousse recipe here.
  15. French lentils. These legumes are grown in central France. French lentils are prepared by boiling the lentils with fresh carrots and garlic, and herbs.

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