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French food was once synonymous with fancy, expensive, fussy restaurants, but much of it is rather homey and humble, and perfectly suited to weeknight cooking. From simple, quick sautés to long-cooked braises like blanquette de veau, and more elaborate dishes like cassoulet, it’s all delicious, and not necessarily always (though often enough) rich with butter and cream.
When we think of French food, we're often thinking, subconsciously or not, of bistros and Paris, and every type of regional French cuisine can be found in that city, but specific dishes did originate in different corners of the country. On the coast, Normandy gave birth to many seafood dishes like bouillabaisse, and Brittany is where some of the world's most famous fleur de sel is harvested. Close to the border of Germany, Alsace was where heartier dishes like choucroute garnie and tarte flambée were invented. Burgundy, no surprise, gave us wine-enriched dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. Provence, in the south of France, produced lighter, almost Mediterranean dishes heavy on vegetables, like ratatouille and soupe au pistou. That's still only a sampling of French regions and their cuisines, and it's impossible to pick a favorite.
Luckily, you don't have to either. You can cook any style of French cuisine in your own kitchen, from brasserie classics like steak frites and salade Lyonnais to lofty cheese or chocolate soufflés.
Even if you don’t feel like turning on the stove, you can build a wonderfully satisfying French meal out of bread, cheese, pâté, and wine. So stock your pantry with these French essentials and you’ll always have options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
Onions are the star of that classic French soup, of course, but also one of the three key ingredients in mirepoix, which underpins many French sauces and braises.
Garlic is très Gallic. It’s used in aioli, persillade, and countless soups, sauces, and other dishes; the average French citizen eats 1 ½ pounds of garlic per year.
Good unsalted French butter is essential to sautéing, mounting sauces, and making buerre blanc.
Fleur de sel harvested from seawater adds a delicate briny crunch to finished French dishes.
Eggs are required for fluffy souffles, creamy quiches, and perfect French omelettes.
A splash of cream added to pan juices makes a great quick sauce for mussels, chicken, or steak.
Leeks vinaigrette is a classic French dish, but they’re also used for soups and tarts.
Carrots are part of the aforementioned all-important mirepoix.
And celery is the third member of the mirepoix trio.
Dried mushrooms can be rehydrated for rich, creamy soups, vol-au-vent, or mushroom duxelles.
Butter isn’t the only fat used in French cooking. Olive oil is useful as a higher-heat alternative (or partner to butter) for sautéing in particular.
Keep vinegar on hand to make quick vinaigrettes for salads.
Fresh bread is a French favorite, particularly baguettes and boules. Eat for breakfast with a coffee, or after dinner with a bit of cheese.
You can make fresh pâté, or buy shelf-stable versions to keep on hand when you have a hankering for a Gallic snack. Rillettes and foie gras work too.
Obviously, wine is a must. Keep your favorite reds and whites on hand for sipping, but for cooking too, because you don’t want to make a dish you’ll eat with wine you wouldn’t drink.
French cheese is amazing, and properly stored, it can keep for quite a while. Consider keeping Gruyere on hand for gougeres and Croque Monsieur.
Saucisson, or French dry sausage, is another great snack to keep in your larder.
Mustard adds a nice tang to vinaigrettes and pan sauces, and is also a great accompaniment to your cured or preserved meats. Dijon is a classic choice.
Picholine olives are common in France and have a nice nutty flavor that’s worth seeking out
French cornichons add a nice piquant crunch to your terrine or pâté.
If you’re a fan of fish, stock some French sardines or tuna in your pantry, maybe alongside some canned escargot if you savor snails.
Canned tomatoes and tomato paste will be useful for building flavor in several French stews and braises, like boeuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse.
Dried seasonings are a no-brainer, especially the blend of rosemary, thyme, savory, lavender, and other herbs (every chef has their own mix) known as herbes de Provence.
Fresh herbs also come in handy, like parsley and thyme for making bouquet garni. Grow these in little windowsill pots if you can.
Dried Puy lentils, or French green lentils, make a great simple side dish, or can be used in cassoulet.
A good French baking chocolate is tempting to nibble, but keep it on hand for making mousse, ganache, éclairs, and other delicious desserts.
French cognac is great splashed into pan sauce, and can be flambéed for crepes Suzette.
Why not keep a bottle of real French champagne on hand for impromptu celebrations, or just whenever you’re feeling bubbly?