We love French food for a multitude of reasons: it’s one of the baselines for modern cuisine, it’s comforting and often indulgent, and it can be as complicated or as classically simple as you like. From high quality butter to flaky salt and wine (for cooking and drinking), we’ve compiled the most essential ingredients and pantry items for mastering the art of all things French food. Grab your toque and get started.
Herbes de Provences
Literally herbs from Provence (a region in Southeastern France), this dried herb blend can vary, but often contains basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, and sage. The French use the fragrant mixture to add aromatic punch to everything from chicken to fish to vinaigrettes.
Bouquet garni refers to a bundle of herbs, generally wrapped together in cheesecloth or simply tied with cooking twine. The classic version features parsley, thyme, and bay leaf and is generally used to flavor stews, soups, broths, and even roasted or sautéed vegetables. Combining the ingredients in one bouquet makes for easy removal before serving, once they’ve fully infused the dish.
Leeks resemble red onions, with purplish skin, and a slightly more oval, oblong shape. French vinaigrettes often feature shallots, and you’ll also find them as a star ingredient for roasted meats and fish. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, they’re also a classic side for beef tartare.
Fleur de sel
French for “flower of salt,” this delicate, flaky sea salt is gathered through an intensive hand-harvesting process in clear sea waters—most notably off the coast of Brittany. Because of the labor-heavy method of harvesting, performed by artisans known as paludiers, fleur de sel is often quite expensive. Since it’s used sparingly, though, as a garnish on dishes (rather than during the cooking process), it is a great investment and an asset to any French pantry. Try sprinkling the slightly off-white salt right before serving, and you’ll enjoy the light tang of this much sought-after ingredient.
Native to the mediterranean, this member of the allium family (along with onion, garlic, scallion, and shallot) resembles a giant scallion, and has a flavor similar to—but far milder than—onion and garlic. We use leeks frequently as an aromatic base (in the way one would use onion), but a traditional French preparation is a vinaigrette, in which the vegetable is simmered until tender and topped with a mustardy dressing.
All butter is not created equal! According to U.S. law, butter must be at least 80% milk fat, while the minimum for French butter must be at least 82%. This may not seem like a big difference, but anyone who has tried French butter can attest to the richness and slightly more elastic texture. Don’t fly to Paris just for this ingredient, though, just cook with the best butter you can find! It’s is the basis for myriad sauces and French preparations, from the shallot and wine-laced beurre blanc to beurre manié dough (often used to thicken sauces).
Whether you like it tangy or sweet, grainy or smooth, brown or bright yellow, mustard is a must-have ingredient for French cooking. Dijon mustard is the most commonly known option in France, and is made from white or back mustard seeds, white wine, unfermented grape juice, and seasonings. Mustard adds tang to French salad dressings and sauces for a huge variety of meals.
The French are famous for their wine, and with good reason. From the reds of burgundy and bordeaux to the whites of Alsace and the Loire Valley to the rosés of Provence and the champagnes of…Champagne, France is the birthplace of so many varietals. In addition to pairing wine with food, both red and white wines are essential ingredients in many French dishes; boeuf bourgignon and coq au vin wouldn’t be the dishes they are without the addition of red wine. Many a French sauce is infused with white wine for that depth and, simply put, je ne sais quoi. If you are cooking with wine, make sure it’s drinkable, too. The French would want it that way!