Essential French Cooking Terms
Recipes can start sounding unusual pretty quickly if you’re not familiar with common French cooking terms. There you are, cruising along the instructions, only to be stopped in your tracks when asked to “julienne” your vegetables, or to pop a “bouquet garni” into your soup or stew. You don’t have to be a fluent French speaker, nor do you need to be an expert of French cuisine, to pick up common French culinary terms.
This simple primer on frequently used French cooking terms will not only enrich your vocabulary, but improve your general food and cooking knowledge.
Of course, the quicker you can navigate a recipe, you more time to worry about the actual food, so you can start perfecting French dishes such as the ones taught in the Craftsy class French Cooking at Home: The Food of Provence.
If a recipe calls for a bain-marie, don’t panic. You already know this one, as funny as it may sound. Literally translated as “Marie’s bath”, this term refers to a method of cooking in which a substance is heated gradually by the rising heat of simmering water in a vessel below. In America, it’s referred to as a “water bath”, and is a common method of melting chocolate in a vehicle called a double boiler. Its name may refer to a woman named Marie who developed the technique, but it may also refer to the biblical Mary, whose gentleness matched the gradual, gentle method of applying heat.
Beurre blanc (burr blahnk)
Although it means “white butter”, this emulsified sauce is a little more complex than it may sound. It’s made by reducing vinegar or white wine with shallots until almost dry, then combining it off-heat with cold butter. Butter contains natural emulsifiers which allow it to be combined without separating. It’s similar in concept to Hollandaise sauce, but the flavor is more mild. This sauce is commonly used with seafood dishes.
Beurre noisette (burr nwa-zett)
This is a simple thing that makes just about anything taste better. Beurre noisette, or browned butter, is made by simply cooking butter until it is browned. It changes the flavor profile of the butter from creamy and mild to distinctly nutty. The name, which translates as “hazelnut butter” has a double meaning: it refers to the toasty color of the finished substance as well as its nutty aroma once cooked.
Bouquet garni (boo-kay garnee)
Though it translates as “garnished bouquet”, this is actually a bundle of aromatic spices, tied together with string or assembled in a small sachet, and used to flavor soup, stock, or stew. Once the cooking is complete, the spices are removed, having done their work. While there are many variations on the spices that make up bouquet garni, common components include bay leaves, thyme, parsley, basil, chervil, rosemary, peppercorns,and tarragon. Learn how to make bouquet garni on the Craftsy blog.
You might think “chiffon cake” or “chiffon pie” when you hear this cooking term, but it actually means “in rags”. It refers to slicing food–commonly herbs or levy greens–in a particular way, in which you roll up a stack of pliable vegetable or herb into a cigar-like shape and then slice it thinly, crosswise. When unraveled, the resulting slices will reveal themselves in thin, “rag-like” pieces.
A consommé is a particularly rich, clear soup made from a richly flavored stock (in some recipes, over a pound of meat can be used to make a single serving) which has been clarified using egg whites to remove fat and sediment. It is served piping-hot, because as it cools it becomes slightly gel-like. It is often served with a garnish, from a splash of sherry to a dollop of crème fraîche.
This means, simply, to “deglaze”. If you’ve pan roasted or braised meats, you’ve likely seen the term in a recipe. It’s a method of dissolving the concentrated and thickened juices which solidify on the bottom of a pan after searing or pan cooking the meat. Any number of liquids can be used to deglaze, including stock, wine, cream, vinegar, water, or juice.
Fines herbes (feens-ehrbs)
Unlike bouquet garni, this is an assemblage of more mild flavors which are incorporated during the end of cooking process as a flavoring and are not removed. Typically, fines herbes include parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. Fines herbes will often be featured in dishes such as omelets.
Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Alan Levine
To flambé is arguably one of the flashiest cooking methods. It’s a cooking procedure in which alcohol is added to a hot pan. The other ingredients may cause it to ignite, or a long match may be used to add a flame. Either way, a burst of flames will rapidly burn the alcohol, adding additional aroma and flavor while taking the harshness of the alcohol away. Famous dishes which feature flambéing include bananas foster or cherries jubilee, and on the savory front, coq au vin.
You’ve probably heard the term “au gratin”, that oh so delicious cheesy and bubbly result. If something is gratiné, it is a food which has been sprinkled with a decadent mixture of bread crumbs, butter, and often cheese. The dish is then browned under high heat, such a as a broiler. The bubbly, rich top crust is then referred to as “au gratin”.
This refers to a specific knife cut in which food is cut into long, matchstick-thin strips. Most often, vegetables are julienned before being incorporated into dishes (where “julienne refers to the chopping technique), and can also refer to the finished item: carrots julienne, julienne fries (also called “shoestring”), and so on. However, the julienne cutting technique can also be used for meat and seafood, especially before incorporating it into dishes such as a stir-fry.
This is a vital French cooking term. Mirepoix is a mixture of chopped vegetables, usually a mixture celery, onions, and carrots. It can be used raw, roasted, sautéed with butter or olive oil, to create stocks, stews, or sauces. Sometimes, the mixture of celery, onion, and carrots will be referred to as “the aromatics”.
A “roux” is a mixture made by combining flour and fat (commonly butter, but lard or drippings can be used too). It’s usually not consumed as-is but instead is the base of several mother sauces, including béchamel, velouté, and sauce espagnole. It can also be used as a base for soups, stew or gravy.
Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Pixonomy
In French, the verb “sauter” means “to jump or bounce”. Why apply this term to a cooking method where food is cooked with a small amount of oil or fat over fairly high heat? Well, because once the food hits the oil, it has a tendency to jump within the pan, propelled by the crackling of the fat over heat. Sautéing preserves moisture while cooking with a satisfying browned exterior. Sautéing is typically done in a special sauté pan.