Freshly baked croissants, flavorful escargot, savory crepes—et plus! These are just some of the commonly known dishes that make up the delicious bounty that is French cuisine.
Perhaps you've tried some of these or heard of the famous chef Julia Child who introduced American households to French cooking beginning in the early 1960s. Whatever your introduction to French food may be, there is a world of art, quality, precision and wonder rooted in French cuisine.
Let's explore more. In this article we will discuss:
- A history of French cuisine
- French dining style
- Traditional French ingredients
- Traditional French dishes
A history of French cuisine
France embodies beautiful themes like romance and luxury—so it's no wonder that its cuisine contains elegant and rich flavors. Traditional French foods began to take form during the 14th century when chef Guillaume Tirel prepared dishes for royalty and developed one of Europe's first cookbooks. Royals at the time flaunted their gallant dining in rich and extravagant ways, and food was one way to show this aspect of their culture.
The cuisine evolved with chefs like François Pierre La Varenne and Marie-Antoine Carême who incorporated local ingredients, from cheeses (fromage) to herbs to wine. Francois developed recipes for dishes you may have heard before, like bisque and Béchamel. Marie-Antoine coined the term “haute" cuisine (otherwise known as grande cuisine), meaning a high-level version of cooking. This is a way of elevating food to a new experience, a style still used today in Paris.
French cuisine isn't just practiced in France—it shares lots of similarities to Mediterranean style dishes given the French influence on tropical islands like Martinique or regions like French Guinea. Many French techniques and styles have been adopted by cultures across the world, creating deeper flavors and experiences, not to mention a plethora of innovative dishes.
As French cuisine evolved, so did its practice and etiquette. While francophones have varied their dining styles slightly, they generally follow the same rules.
French dining style
Unlike in the United States, eating meals in France takes more time and follows a distinct flow. Below, we'll explore each step of the dining process.
Le petit déjeuner (breakfast)
Otherwise known as breakfast, le petit dejeuner is a francophone's first meal of the day. It generally consists of something light and simple. For example, bread with jam and café au lait.
Le déjeuner (lunch)
In France, many take a long lunch (about 2 hours), which begins with a small course equivalent to a U.S. appetizer. This starter course is called “entrée" (not to be confused with the U.S. word “entre" meaning the main meal). This could be a salad, soup or perhaps a sandwich like un croque monsieur. For longer meals, there's also a “plat principal" or the main dish of the meal.
Le dîner (dinner)
You guessed it—le dîner does in fact mean dinner! Dinner consists of three courses--hors d'oeuvre (translates to “outside of the meal," eaten prior to the meal), the plat principal and a final course consisting of cheese with bread and wine.
Digestifs and apéritifs
Have you ever been offered limoncello at the end of an Italian meal? If so, you've just been introduced to a digestif. This is a type of alcohol that you have after your main meals/dessert and before coffee as a way to help digest. In French cuisine, digestifs include Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Eau de vie and other fruit alcohols.
Meanwhile, an aperitif is enjoyed prior to the meal to entice your appetite. These drinks include champagne, Pastis, Crémant d'Alsace and Kir.
Instead of saying “cheers" like we do in the U.S., the French say the phrase, “à votre santé" or “santé" is used to toast. This means “to your health." This is similar to toasts in other European countries like Ireland (“sláinte" or “health").
This phrase sounds a lot like “baguette etiquette," which is essentially what this is about! In French dining, rather than put bread on your plate, you're supposed to leave the bread off to the side of the plate when eating it during a meal.
Traditional French ingredients
French food is only as good as its ingredients. Francophones value the idea that nothing goes to waste and that ingredients are fresh. This means anything that does not get used will likely be used to create the base of stews or soups. Regions are also important—many take pride in the origins of the specific cheese and wine that's made. Each region brings its own interesting flavors to make up the larger complex French palette. Whether that's a glass of bubbly from Champagne or a quiche Lorraine, you'll get distinct flavors from various pockets of France. Let's explore some of these ingredients below.
French foods are known for their deep, rich flavors—so it's no wonder that butter is one of its main ingredients. Butter is essential for many dishes, such as in sauces and buttery pastries. It is specially made in France—it is churned after it's been fermented, which makes it richer than most butters typically produced in the U.S.
Herbs de Provence
Another common ingredient is Herbs de Provence—a blend of herbs grown in the Provence hills and Southern France. This blend includes thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, savory, marjoram, oregano and bay leaves. Herbs de Provence can be added to many dishes to bring out complimentary flavors and spices.
Leeks are widely used in France. It's a versatile vegetable that can be used in soup, salads and stews, making it a popular addition to many French dishes. They are mild and slightly sweet, similar to garlic and onion.
French cooking techniques and definitions
There are plenty of phrases we've borrowed from the French, especially when it comes to their cooking and techniques. You may be familiar with some of the terms below, but what do they really mean?
Ever hear the term “sous-chef" when cooking? This phrase derives from the French word “sous" which means “top." So, “sous-chef" translates to “top assistant chef." This is someone who has a lot of expertise and responsibility working in the kitchen and assisting other chefs.
Mise en place
This phrase is used when you're doing prep work for your cooking. “Mise en place" translates to the idea that everything is “in place" to prepare for cooking. Examples include measuring out dry and wet ingredients and keeping them in their separate bowls before incorporating them.
Confit stems from the term “confiture" which means preservatives (like jam/jelly). Confit is a cooking style where ingredients are “preserved" by being slowly cooked in salt and fat at low temperature. One example of this is duck confit.
You have likely seen this word in just about any cookbook. This is a well-known and widely used term that has French roots. Sauté stems from the French verb “sauter," which means to jump. As you may already know, sautéing means to quickly pan fry ingredients with oil/butter quickly.
Stemming from the French word “braiser," to braise is to sear the meat before cooking it slowly at a low temperature. You may have heard this term before when describing meats such as “braised short ribs."
Traditional French dishes
From slow-cooked meats to fresh, vibrant vegetable dishes, traditional French meals can vary in their palette and presentation. These dishes have historic, language and regional roots that bring all the senses together. These dishes include:
- Ratatouille—A dish originating from Provence that incorporates vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, squash and tomato. Often cooked with Herbs de Provence, it slowly transforms into a hearty stew.
- Coq Au Vin—Translated to “rooster in wine," this chicken dish is cooked slowly in a stew with aromatic flavors and vegetables.
- Boeuf Bourguignon—A Burgundy-based dish, the beef in this recipe is cooked low and slow in (preferably Burgundy) red wine and vegetables.
- Crepes—Similar to a thin pancake, the folds are draped around either light or savory fillings. Think mix-ins like chocolate and strawberry, or meat and cheese.
Whether you're thinking of traveling to France or hoping to bring a little French culture into your home, you can find many ways to incorporate the elements of France into your cuisine. From set courses to bread etiquette to enriching your ingredients, there are many levels to the beautiful and delicate array of French food.