60 essential French cooking terms to know

60 essential French cooking terms to know

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated 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.

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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.

Frenchto fry until golden brown
abaisserto roll out
couperto cut
battre en neigeto whisk (egg white)

Translated literally, this phrase means “to beat into snow.” 
blanchirto blanch
blondirto whip vigorously to increase the volume
délayerto mix slowly
This phrase tends to be used when you mix a liquid like milk with other ingredients.
égoutterto drain
émincerto slice thinly
épaissirto thicken
étalerto spread
faire chaufferto heat up
faire cuireto cook (in the oven or on the hob)
faire fondreto melt
faire monterto whip vigorously to increase volume
farcirto stuff
fouetterto whip
frireto fry
hacherto chop, to mince
incorporerto incorporate, to mix
lierto thicken, to bind
mélangerto mix
mijoterto simmer
pétrirto knead
rectifierto adjust the seasoning
réduireto reduce, to boil down
releverto season
remuerto stir, to mix
saupoudrerto sprinkle
tamiserto sieve, to sift
verserto pour

7 French terms to describe heating techniques

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 douxto cook on a low heat
faire cuire à feu moyento cook on a medium heat
faire cuire à feu vifto cook on a high heat
faire cuire au bain-marieto cook in a bain-marieIn 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-videto cook in a vacuumThis 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’étoufféeto cook in a tightly shut pot or steamerThe verb étouffer literally means “to suffocate” or “to stifle,” which is a good image for this cooking technique.
faire cuire en papilloteto cook in foil or paper parcelsIn this cooking technique, fish or meat are wrapped up in foil or parchment paper, so as to be oven-cooked in their own steam.

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23 culinary terms in French

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.

10 popular dishes in France

From starters to desserts, here are some favorites among French dishes.

une soupea soup
un veloutéa cream soup
une bisquea shellfish soupThe most famous and popular is probably the bisque de homard (lobster soup).
un pâtéa pâtéA 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.
une terrinea terrine dishA 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.
un ragoûta stewA ragoût usually contains a mix of meat and vegetables.
une blanquettea stew with a white sauceA blanquette is made of meat that has not been fried or browned, such as chicken, veal or lamb.
une fricasséea stew of white meat or fish, also with a white sauceSimilar to a blanquette, a fricassée is prepared by cooking meat at high heat in oil before adding a liquid to let it simmer.
un gratina gratinA gratin is characterized by a top crust made of cheese and/or breadcrumbs. The most famous example is probably the gratin dauphinois.
un souffléa souffléIn 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.

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5 words for condiments and herbs used in French cooking

Generally speaking, French dishes are not spicy, but they may still contain some condiments or herbs.

le selsalt
le poivrepepper
la moutardemustard
les herbes de Provenceherbs of ProvenceThis mix of herbs from the south French region of Provence usually includes thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil and tarragon.
un bouquet garnia bouquet garniIn 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.

8 sauces to accompany French dishes

French cuisine is famous for its many sauces — some hot, some cold. These sauces may accompany any number of traditional French dishes.

la mayonnaisemayonnaiseMayonnaise is probably the most famous French sauce. It’s usually served with cold food like chicken, tuna, shrimp, tomatoes or eggs.
la sauce tartaretartar sauceTartare sauce is made of mayonnaise and a mix of herbs. It often accompanies breaded or fried food.
la sauce hollandaiseDutch sauceContrary 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 béarnaisebéarnaise sauceThis variant of the sauce hollandaise is usually served with meat or fish.
la sauce au pistoupesto sauceThis 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 béchamelbéchamel sauceThis 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 blancwhite butter sauceWithout surprise, butter is the main ingredient of this sauce, alongside white wine, vinegar and shallots. It’s served warm with grilled fish or shellfish. 
le coulisa coulisStemming from the verb couler (to flow), a coulis is a thick, smooth sauce made of puréed fruits. It usually garnishes desserts and cakes.

Get a taste of the French vocabulary around cooking

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!

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Anne-Lise Vassoille

Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries… Settled down in London, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

Anne-Lise Vassoille
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