Have you come across a French term in a recipe or on a restaurant menu and thought “qu’est?” (“what?”)? This glossary has you covered with explanations for 54 fundamental French cooking terms, as well as their pronunciations.
Why Learn French Cooking Terms?
First, the food is exquisite! In my humble opinion, French food is some of the most classic and beautiful food in the world.
Second, French cooking techniques have influenced global cuisines for centuries. They are fundamental. When you master the basics of French cooking, you’ll find yourself better prepared to make a variety of recipes, not just French. Plus, you can build off of those skills to tackle even more intricate dishes and techniques.
Even if you haven’t consciously set out to make French food, chances are you’ve used a French cooking technique at some point, or made a dish that evolved from a basic French recipe.
I’m willing to bet my favorite pan that you’ve sautéed! Have you ever made macaroni and cheese that started with a thickened a white sauce? You made béchamel (besciamella in Italian, turned into a mornay sauce when you added the cheese). Did you top it with buttered breadcrumbs in a casserole dish and bake it? If so, that macaroni and cheese was gratinéed.
How Did I Learn These Cooking Terms?
I’ve built my French cooking knowledge through the years from reading cookbooks (I cozy up with them like novels), watching cooking shows, taking cooking classes, and talking with classically-trained chef friends (as well as observing them in their professional kitchens when they invite me!).
Then, in probably the most important step, I’ve turned observing into practice. In many cases, this lead to the (quite literal) taste of disappointment, more reading, more practice, and eventually, something delicious.
I can absolutely say that I’ve become a better cook across the board by learning the basics (and not-so-basics) of French cooking.
About This Glossary
In this reference guide, you’ll find some of the most common and fundamental French cooking terms. I’ve organized them alphabetically with definitions, links to recipes (where applicable), and pronunciations (because, not all of us speak French!).
Tackle the list from top to bottom, or use the letter index below to jump to each section.
The Glossary: French Cooking Terms Defined (and How to Pronounce Them)
Pronunciation: ay-OH-lee or a-oh-LEE
Traditionally: an emulsion of garlic, salt, and olive oil.
Popularly: a garlicky flavored mayonnaise.
Pronunciation: ban mah-REE
A hot water bath. A bain-marie protects delicate mixtures, like custards and cheesecakes, from the oven’s direct heat. It adds humidity to the oven and helps these types of recipes cook more evenly.
To make a bain-marie, place the pan(s) or dish(es) containing your recipe in a larger pan (like a roasting pan or bigger baking dish). Pour boiling water into the outer dish until it reaches halfway up the sides of the inner pan (or as far up as your recipe instructs). If using a springform pan for a cheesecake, wrap the outer bottom and sides in foil so water doesn’t seep in.
A bain-marie can also refer to a double boiler (a bowl or small pot set in a pot of simmering water). Commonly used to gently melt chocolate.
One of the five French Mother Sauces, béchamel is a creamy white sauce made from milk whisked into a white roux (flour cooked in melted butter, without browning). You’ll see it used a variety of recipes from savory soufflé bases and Mornay (cheese) sauce, to lasagna, scalloped potatoes, and regional American gravies.
RECIPE: Sauce Béchamel
Pronunciation: burr BLAHNK
A delicate sauce made from a reduction of white wine, white vinegar, and shallots, emulsified with chilled butter. It can be finished with fresh herbs, like fines herbes. Beurre Blanc has a velvety, creamy texture and is pale yellow in color. Typically served with seafood (poached fish, especially) and vegetables.
Pronunciation: burr man-EE
An uncooked mixture of flour and butter added to soups, stews, and sauces to thicken and give them a glossy, velvety texture. Beurre manié translates to “kneaded butter”.
To make it, combine softened butter and flour in a 1:1 ratio until smooth. Then, just whisk the paste into the liquid you’re cooking by the teaspoonful. As the butter melts, it distributes the flour into the liquid without clumping. The mixture will start to thicken within about a minute.
(Compare to: Roux)
Pronunciation: burr nwah-ZHET
Brown butter. When you melt butter, the milk solids and butterfat will separate. As you continue to cook the butter, water evaporates, and the milk solids will collect in the bottom of the pan, developing a nutty color and flavor.
Noisette translates to “hazelnut,” which describes the butter’s appearance and aroma. (In my humble opinion, beurre noisette is one of the most delicious things on the planet!)
Traditionally: Smooth, creamy soup made from crustaceans such as lobster and shrimp. The shells flavor the stock, with the meat either stirred into the soup and/or used as a garnish.
Popularly: Velvety, pureed soup that doesn’t necessarily contain shellfish (i.e. Mushroom Bisque, Pumpkin Bisque).
A ragoût (stew) of white meat (veal–de veau, chicken–de poulet) that isn’t browned during cooking. Blanquette has a creamy white sauce and often contains mushrooms.
Pronunciation: BOOL-yon (light “l”)
A clear, seasoned broth, made from simmering meat, vegetables, and seasonings in water. The term is often used interchangeably with broth.
Bouillon also refers to cubes and powders of concentrated, dehydrated broth. You can reconstitute this type of bouillon in water, or add the cubes/powder directly to soups and sauces for a flavor boost.
Pronunciation: bo-KAY gar-NEE
Herbs (fresh or dried), tied together with cooking string or twine in a bundle, and used to flavor soups and stews. Classic bouquet garni ingredients are thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, and parsley. Sometimes, they contain aromatics, such as leeks or celery.
Bouquet garni makes infusing flavor with herbs convenient. You can just remove the bundle from the pot in one piece without fishing around for individual sprigs.
A knife technique where a julienned vegetable (carrot, turnip, celery, etc.) is stacked and cut from the end into a very small dice (1/8- to 1/16-inch cubes). The brunoise is the smallest dicing size in French cuisine.
A bite-sized, layered hors d’oeuvre that translates to “couch.” Canapés start with a sturdy base layer (the couch) on top of which the main ingredients sit.
The base was traditionally a small piece of toasted bread, but you can also use crackers, puff pastry (such as a small vol au vent), sliced vegetables (like cucumber rounds), or a slice of fruit. It should be something that guests can easily pick up from a tray and hold with their fingers.
A parchment paper lid that sits directly on the surface of ingredients in a pot or pan. A cartouche is most often used when simmering, poaching, braising, and sweating (i.e. foods containing or cooked with liquid). The cartouche slows down the evaporation of liquids in the pan, but still allows steam to escape, so ingredients can cook gently and evenly.
Some sauces also have a tendency to form a skin when cooked uncovered and exposed to air. A cartouche will stop this skin from forming.
The art of preserving meats with salting, cooking, and curing methods. Examples of charcuterie are sausages, confit, terrines, ham, bacon, and pâté. A lot of charcuterie is pork-based, but it doesn’t have to be.
Today, charcuterie (and cheese) boards are very popularly served as an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre, and even as a light meal.
A knife technique for cutting leafy ingredients, such as spinach, broad-leafed lettuces, kale, and herbs, such as basil and mint. To make a chiffonade, stack and roll the leaves, and cut them into thin, ribbon-like strips. Chiffonade makes a beautiful and delicate garnish.
A cone-shaped strainer constructed with a fine, metal mesh. A chinois is a great tool to have for straining sauces, purees, soups, and stocks to a very smooth consistency. You’ll often find a chinois paired with a stand to position it over a bowl or pot, and a pestle to help press foods through the mesh (useful for removing seeds from cooked tomatoes or seedy purees, such as blackberry or raspberry.)
A preservation method where meats are both cooked slowly and stored in their own rendered fat. (i.e. Duck Confit, made from duck legs and duck fat.) The confit process can be used on vegetables as well, such as garlic and tomatoes.
RECIPE: Duck Confit
Stock that has been clarified (usually, using egg whites) and concentrated. It has a clear color and a stronger flavor than the stock used to make it.
A light, smooth sauce made from pureed fruits or vegetables. Coulis is often drizzled as a garnish, or poured/spooned as a base for plating. For example, you might order a dessert presented on a plate decorated with swirls of raspberry coulis.
Pronunciation: core bool–yon (light “l”)
A quickly-cooked broth most often used to poach other foods, like seafood. Common ingredients include water, white wine, lemon juice, and aromatics.
A thick, fermented cream. Compared to American sour cream, crème fraîche has a higher fat content (30-40%, compared to 18-20%), giving it a richer texture. The flavor is lightly-tangy and not as assertively sour as sour cream.
A cylindrical or egg-shaped patty rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Croquettes are shaped from cooked meats (most often minced or ground after cooking), fish, and/or vegetables. To form the patties, the ingredients are bound together with eggs or a thick sauce, such as béchamel or velouté.
You can make croquets out of a variety of fillings, including mashed potatoes, rice, chicken/turkey, or salmon.
RECIPE: Mashed Potato Croquettes
A concentrated sauce made from equal parts of Espagnole and brown stock (made from roasted veal and/or beef bones). The mixture is slowly reduced by half until it’s rich in texture and glossy, with a deep, meaty flavor.
A traditional demi-glace takes quite a long time to make, but the flavor is substantial, and you can freeze it for up to six months. While it isn’t one of the Mother Sauces, demi-glace is a staple of French cooking. It can be served as a sauce on its own, or used to flavor other sauces.
Chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with onions or shallots and herbs, such as parsley. Duxelles is often used in stuffings and fillings (such as Beef Wellington, omelettes, and vol au vent). It also makes a delicious hors d’oeuvre, on top of goat cheese crostini.
Literally, “in crust.” Foods that are wrapped in pastry (such as puff pastry, pie dough, or phyllo) and baked. (i.e Brie en Croute, Beef Wellington.)
In France: The course before the main dish (an appetizer).
In the United States: The main dish of a meal.
A boneless piece of meat that is pounded with a mallet or rolled with a pin until thin. (Essentially, a thin cutlet.) Often sautéed, rolled and stuffed, or breaded and pan-fried.
One of the five French Mother Sauces, Espagnole is a basic brown sauce, made from a mirepoix, brown roux, tomato puree and brown (veal or beef) stock. Espagnole is a reduced sauce and is very richly flavored, so it’s usually the basis for other sauces and flavoring agents (such as demi glace and sauce Bordelaise) rather than served on its own.
Finely-chopped mixture of fresh parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil (sometimes, also marjoram) commonly used in French cooking. You’ll find fines herbes in dishes including omelettes, salads, and sauces, such as beurre blanc.
Foods containing strong alcohol (such as brandy, cognac, rum) that are ignited. The flame extinguishes as the alcohol cooks out of the dish. Well-known flambéed dishes include Crêpes Suzette, Bananas Foster, and Cherries Jubilee.
RECIPE: Crêpes Suzette
Traditionally: Warm, melted cheese and white wine emulsion of Swiss-French origin, served in a pot (a “caquelon”), and used as a dip for skewered bread cubes.
Popularly: Warm, fluid dip, served in a pot, such as melted cheese or chocolate. You might also see broth fondues, where you dip thinly-sliced meat or vegetables into a communal pot of seasoned broth to cook.
RECIPE: Making Swiss Cheese Fondue
A rustic, stew-like dish where the meat is first sautéed without browning, braised, and served in a white sauce. The meats and vegetables in a traditional fricassée should not be caramelized.
Fricassée is most often made with chicken or veal.
RECIPE: Chicken and Mushroom Fricassée
Pronunciation: GRA-tee-nay / oh gra-TAN
Dishes that are baked or broiled with a crust of breadcrumbs and/or cheese (i.e. the good stuff!). “Gratin” derives from the French verb, “gratter,” which means, “to scrape.”
Many recipes you’ll see described as au gratin or gratinéed are prepared in casserole or shallow baking dishes (“gratin dishes”) with a creamy sauce (such as Potatoes au Gratin).
An emulsion of egg yolks, vinegar (traditional; some recipes use lemon juice), water, and butter. One of the five French Mother Sauces, hollandaise is rich, creamy, and pastel yellow in color. You’ll find it as the finishing sauce for Eggs Benedict, poached salmon, and vegetables, like asparagus.
A small taste of food served prior to sitting down for a meal, or in place of a meal at a cocktail party. (Is it an appetizer? Technically, no, since an appetizer is the first course once you’re seated for a meal. You could have both hors d’oeuvres and an appetizer at a dinner party.)
Hors d’oeuvers can be served hot or cold, are usually only one or two bites, and are often finger foods. Examples of hors d’oeuvres are crudités, canapés, deviled eggs, and small, skewered foods.
RECIPE: How to Make Deviled Eggs
A knife technique of cutting food (usually, vegetables) into small, thin strips.
Pronunciation: (oh)-ZHOO (zh = soft j)
Meats (such as Roasted Prime Rib) that are served with their natural juices (the jus). As the meat roasts, the drippings will collect in the pan. You’ll deglaze the pan to extract all of that good flavor while the meat rests.
Jus doesn’t need to be thickened, but it can be, by simmering until it’s reduced to your desired consistency. It doesn’t use thickening agents, like roux or beurre manié, which differentiates jus from gravy.
Small strips of slab bacon, usually around 1/4-inch wide and thick. The shape and thickness of the cut renders fat particularly well, and allows the bacon to achieve a crisp-tender/meaty texture (while strip bacon would just be crisp).
(à la) Meunière
Pronunciation: (ah-la) moo-NYEHR
A simple seafood dish (typically made with sole or another white fish), where whole fish or fillets are dredged in flour, sautéed in butter, and finished with a brown butter, lemon, and parsley sauce. The name translates to “in the style of the miller’s wife.”
RECIPE: Sole à la Meunière
A mixture of aromatics containing 2 parts diced onions to 1 part diced celery and 1 part diced carrots. You’ll most often sweat a mirepoix as the base for soups, stews, and sauces.
Mise en Place
To get set up and have everything in you need for a recipe or meal in place before you start cooking. All of your ingredients are prepped (measured, cut, etc.) and organized.
Practicing the “mise en place” philosophy is very useful in the kitchen and makes recipe execution less prone to errors and mishaps. You’ll have everything ready to go and won’t be scrambling to find an ingredient in the pantry, or weigh/measure foods while another component of the recipe is cooking.
I like to “mise en place” as much as possible, especially when making an intricate recipe or hosting a dinner party.
The five basic sauces and sauce-making techniques of French cuisine that form the basis for most, if not all, other sauces. The sauces are: Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, Velouté, and Sauce Tomat. French chef, Marie-Antoine Carême organized the first four foundational sauces in the early 1800’s, and Chef Auguste Escoffier added tomato sauce to the group in 1903.
A mixture of meats, organ meats (such as chicken or duck liver), seafood, or vegetables, minced or ground with fat into a paste. The texture ranges from coarse to quite smooth, depending on the recipe. Pâté can be baked and served en croute, prepared as a terrine, or simply served chilled in a crock as a spread.
Though the words are nearly identical, don’t confuse Pâté with Pâte (no accent on the e), which refers to pastry.
Foods wrapped in a parchment paper or foil packet and baked. The packet traps steam and creates a moist-cooking environment. Most commonly used for delicate foods, like fish fillets. Herbs, citrus juices and slices, a splash of wine, and/or aromatics are typically included in the packet to infuse into the primary ingredient with flavor.
A hearty, slowly-cooked French stew. Ragoût can be made with meat, poultry, seafood, and/or vegetables. (Not to be confused with Italian ragù, sauce.)
A paste of equal parts of flour and melted fat (classically, butter), cooked together and used to thicken liquids, such as sauces.
Depending on how long the flour and fat mixture is cooked, you can create a white roux (lightest), blond roux (slightly toasted in color and flavor), or a brown roux (the darkest and richest in color and flavor). The lighter the roux, the more thickening power it has.
You might wonder how this compares to beurre manié (flour and butter paste). First, by frying the flour in melted fat for a roux, you remove any taste of raw flour. Second, the order of ingredients is flipped. For a roux, you add the liquid to be thickened to the hot flour and fat mixture. Beurre manié is added cold to a heated liquid.
Pronunciation: sauce toh-MAHT
Simple French tomato sauce, and one of the five French Mother Sauces. Classic Sauce Tomat includes fresh tomatoes and aromatics cooked in rendered salt pork.
RECIPE: Escoffier’s Sauce Tomat
A stovetop cooking technique that involves quickly cooking food in a shallow pan, at a high temperature, with a small amount of fat. Sauté means “jump” in French, which describes the motion of flipping or tossing the food in the pan to brown both sides.
A puffed baked egg dish with a fluffy texture. Soufflés can be savory or sweet, and are made by folding whipped egg whites into a flavored base, such as a cream sauce (béchamel), puree, or pastry cream. Properly-made soufflés rise considerably in the oven, but will deflate the longer they sit at room temperature after baking.
Technique where foods are placed into vacuum sealed bags and cooked in a bath of circulating, temperature-controlled water. When cooking sous vide, you heat the water to the temperature that you want the food to reach (for example – to cook a medium-rare steak, you’d want the water to be between 130 and 135 degrees F).
As the vacuum-sealed food slowly cooks in the water bath, it can’t cook to a temperature higher than the water, and therefore, won’t overcook. Most of the time, when working with meats or seafood, the dish will be finished by quickly searing, broiling, or grilling to develop the surface color and crust.
Food safety guidelines should be carefully considered for time and temperature when cooking sous vide.
A pâté, cooked or prepared in a loaf-shaped mold (earthenware, porcelain, or metal), often using a bain marie. (The term can refer to both the container itself and the completed dish.) Many classic terrines are lined with pork fat before the pâté is added.
Terrines are most often sliced and served chilled or at room temperature.
Recipe: Country Terrine
The first of the five French Mother Sauces, velouté is a light sauce made from a white stock (veal, chicken, vegetable) thickened with blond roux. It is prepared similarly to béchamel, but is lighter since it doesn’t use milk.
Pronunciation: vol-oh-VAHN (light “n” at the end)
A puff pastry cup or shell used to serve meats, vegetables, or fish (often with a cream sauce), or custards with fruit. Translates to “flight in the wind,” describing the puff pastry’s light, flaky texture.
Recipe: How to Make Vol-au-Vent
Looking for a term not on this list? Let us know in the comments below.