60 essential French cooking terms to know
Published on July 14, 2023 / Updated on August 7, 2023
Whether you’re enjoying a fancy meal at a restaurant or brasserie or getting out all your kitchen utensils to start baking at home, life in France often revolves around good food and cooking. But if you want to master the art of haute cuisine and be able to read French recipes without difficulty, you’ll first need to learn the most important cooking terms in French. After all, mastering the terminology is the necessary first step to preparing some of the most iconic French dishes.
Pick up any livre de recettes (cookbook) in French and you’re bound to see many verbs in the imperative. (This is the grammatical mood used to give instructions or commands.) Some verbs are straightforward, while others are more specific and don’t have a direct translation in English.
|to fry until golden brown
|to roll out
|battre en neige
|to whisk (egg white)
Translated literally, this phrase means “to beat into snow.”
|to whip vigorously to increase the volume
|to mix slowly
This phrase tends to be used when you mix a liquid like milk with other ingredients.
|to slice thinly
|to heat up
|to cook (in the oven or on the hob)
|to whip vigorously to increase volume
|to chop, to mince
|to incorporate, to mix
|to thicken, to bind
|to adjust the seasoning
|to reduce, to boil down
|to stir, to mix
|to sieve, to sift
The last step of your recipe may ask you to cook your dish in the oven or on the stove. Sometimes, this will require specific cooking techniques or temperatures:
|faire cuire à feu doux
|to cook on a low heat
|faire cuire à feu moyen
|to cook on a medium heat
|faire cuire à feu vif
|to cook on a high heat
|faire cuire au bain-marie
|to cook in a bain-marie
|In this cooking technique, the ingredients are placed on a dish over a pan of boiling water, so as to avoid direct contact with the heat source. This is typically used to melt chocolate for a cake and to bake terrines or custards.
|faire cuire sous-vide
|to cook in a vacuum
|This cooking technique involves putting the ingredients in an air-tight plastic pouch and submerging it in hot water at a low temperature for a long period of time. This allows the ingredients to cook evenly and to retain their moisture.
|faire cuire à l’étouffée
|to cook in a tightly shut pot or steamer
|The verb étouffer literally means “to suffocate” or “to stifle,” which is a good image for this cooking technique.
|faire cuire en papillote
|to cook in foil or paper parcels
|In this cooking technique, fish or meat are wrapped up in foil or parchment paper, so as to be oven-cooked in their own steam.
For all its variety, French cuisine includes a few staples that often appear on tables throughout the country. Of course, these staples may be prepared with slight variations in ingredients, condiments and sauces, depending on local traditions. Let’s go over these must-see (or should we say “must-eat”?) dishes.
From starters to desserts, here are some favorites among French dishes.
|a cream soup
|a shellfish soup
|The most famous and popular is probably the bisque de homard (lobster soup).
|A pâté is a paste made of chicken, pork or game and herbs. Nowadays, it’s more common to buy pâté at the supermarket than to make your own.
|a terrine dish
|A terrine is a paste of meat or fish that is cooked in an earthen dish in an oven. It may also contain vegetables and/or spices. It can be baked at home and is generally considered a fancier dish than pâté.
|A ragoût usually contains a mix of meat and vegetables.
|a stew with a white sauce
|A blanquette is made of meat that has not been fried or browned, such as chicken, veal or lamb.
|a stew of white meat or fish, also with a white sauce
|Similar to a blanquette, a fricassée is prepared by cooking meat at high heat in oil before adding a liquid to let it simmer.
|A gratin is characterized by a top crust made of cheese and/or breadcrumbs. The most famous example is probably the gratin dauphinois.
|In French, one of the meanings of soufflé is “blown.” This is the main characteristic of this dish, in which a combination of a base and egg whites makes the whole dough rise. A soufflé may be made of a large variety of ingredients, such as cheese, vegetables or chocolate.
Generally speaking, French dishes are not spicy, but they may still contain some condiments or herbs.
|les herbes de Provence
|herbs of Provence
|This mix of herbs from the south French region of Provence usually includes thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil and tarragon.
|un bouquet garni
|a bouquet garni
|In French, bouquet garni means “garnished bunch.” The phrase refers to a selection of herbs grouped together, which usually includes bay leaves, parsley, coriander, thyme, basil and tarragon.
French cuisine is famous for its many sauces — some hot, some cold. These sauces may accompany any number of traditional French dishes.
|Mayonnaise is probably the most famous French sauce. It’s usually served with cold food like chicken, tuna, shrimp, tomatoes or eggs.
|la sauce tartare
|Tartare sauce is made of mayonnaise and a mix of herbs. It often accompanies breaded or fried food.
|la sauce hollandaise
|Contrary to appearances, this sauce is actually French. It received its name in homage to the French victory in the war against Holland from 1672 to 1678. It goes well with fish, seafood and green vegetables like asparagus or broccoli.
|la sauce béarnaise
|This variant of the sauce hollandaise is usually served with meat or fish.
|la sauce au pistou
|This French version of Italian pesto sauce contains olive oil, garlic and basil. Originating from the southeast of France, it can be used with pasta, chicken or fish.
|la sauce béchamel
|This creamy white sauce made of butter, flour and cream is commonly used in lasagna, pasta bakes and vegetable-based gratin dishes.
|la sauce au beurre blanc
|white butter sauce
|Without surprise, butter is the main ingredient of this sauce, alongside white wine, vinegar and shallots. It’s served warm with grilled fish or shellfish.
|Stemming from the verb couler (to flow), a coulis is a thick, smooth sauce made of puréed fruits. It usually garnishes desserts and cakes.
From instructions and techniques to ingredients and sauces, French recipes are full of cooking terms that you’ll need to know before you can successfully prepare the most popular dishes in France. French cooking offers a great chance to impress — both with your language skills and your cooking skills!