America has a long history of elevating French food to the status of the rare, the fancy, and the untouchable by ordinary home cooks. But since 1961, at least, with the appearance of volume one of Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, America established another tradition: demystifying French food for home cooks.
“Good and honest cooking and good and honest French cooking are the same thing,” American expat Richard Olney wrote in The French Menu Cookbook (1970). In other words, authentically French cooking is nothing an average home cook should be afraid to attempt, as long as one approaches it with energy and discernment.
A 60-Second History of One of the World’s Great Cuisines
A medieval chef named Taillevent (1310-1395) is credited with being the kick-off guy for French cuisine as we know it today. Taillevent, a royal chef, is author of a work called Le Viandier, one of Europe’s first (and certainly the most influential) books of medieval recipes. French food failed to be all that, though—it was the weaker cousin of what we’d call Italian cuisine, the elevated dishes of the papal court, influenced by Italy’s access to the Middle East and beyond.
After the 1600s, French cuisine came into its own, developing its own carefully articulated style. Famous chefs and cookbook authors François Pierre La Varenne and Marie-Antoine Carême are major figures in the development of the cuisine. By the late 19th century, though, French food struggled a bit under the weight of its own history. Another chef, Auguste Escoffier, modernized French cooking by approaching it like a military general, not only classifying sauces and other preparations according to type, but organizing huge kitchen staffs into orderly brigades, using titles still in use today (commis, chef de partie, sous chef, and so on).
By the 1920s, when more and more people owned automobiles and were itchy to get out on the roads, the Guide Michelin stepped in, not only to tell people where to go in the French countryside and provincial cities to find regional specialties, but also which restaurants and inns were good enough to merit stars.
Fat, Literally, Is Flavor
In his encyclopedic The Food of France (1958), American journalist Waverley Root breaks down French cuisine in a way that’ still useful to think about regions and tradition: by fat. Specifically, Root looks at France as a nation of three major zones that correspond to the historic use of different cooking fats. The domain of butter comprises most of the country, from the mouth of the Loire river through the Touraine, through Paris and on to the northern border. The domain of olive oil corresponds to the south, especially Provence, Corsica, and the French Riviera. And the domain of lard (broadly animal fats: pork, goose, and duck) comprises Alsace-Lorraine in the east, the Central Plateau, especially Périgord.
French Food is Romance Food
Julia Child, America’s greatest French cookbook author, knew that French food has a special relationship with romance. Check out the five essential things Julia taught us about Valentine’s Day.
The 10 Pieces of Cookware You Need for Making French Food
With advice from the Chowhound community on brands, sizes, and keeping them clean and shiny.
1. An omelet pan.
2. A dedicated crèpe pan.
4. Silicone spatulas for omelets, sauces, and custards.
5. For braises, an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset or Staub.
6. A heavy-bottomed saucepan or saucière for delicate sauces.
7. Gratin dishes.
8. Ramekins for custards, and to use as serving pieces.
9. A removable-ring tart pan for sweet tarts and savory quiches.
10. A stand mixer, for everything from kneading brioche dough to mixing cakes, plus (with the proper attachments) sausages, pâtés, and ice creams.
The 10 Essential Recipes for French Food Newbies
Getting a handle on cooking French food, like learning anything, is a matter of patience. Working with butter takes a little understanding; mastering sauces just takes a little experience. You’ll also want to start with the right recipes: nothing too complex, especially for beginners. You want to feel like you’ve advanced to a small patch of mastery before you make a run for the next, slightly bigger patch.
These 10 recipes are easily within the scope of non-cooks, and they express the exuberant heart of French cuisine. Take a deep breath, give yourself plenty of time, and—maybe more important than anything—buy the best ingredients you can afford.
Julia Child regarded the rolled omelet as a kind of touchstone of French technique, something requiring finesse and application and the opposite of the browned and leathery American diner omelet. Give yourself plenty of time, without pressure (a brunch party is probably not the best time to try your hand at omelets), and lots of extra eggs. Get our Rolled Omelet recipe.
Arguably the most versatile preparation in the French kitchen, crêpes have a dual identity that expresses something essential about the cuisine. As unleavened pancakes made from a simple batter, they couldn’t be more homely. But dressed up, spread with butter and sugar and folded, or wrapped around a creamed savory chicken dish, they’re palpably elegant. Get our Basic Crêpes recipe.
Watch: How to Make a Crêpe
The easiest French sauce to make, but also one of the hardest to get right. It’s a perfect example of a dish that needs pristine ingredients to shine: good, honest wine vinegar; salt that tastes pure, without any off flavors; black peppercorns ground fresh; and good, fruity, non-rancid olive oil. After that, it’s a matter of getting the proportions right. Get our Classic Vinaigrette recipe.
This popular set piece is the best-known example of the French salade composée, or composed salad. It’s a mingling of seasonal things, chosen for texture and flavor and the way they complement each other, kind of like an artist chooses different colors to blend for a painting. What’s crucial here is the French precept that everything should be fresh. Get our Niçoise Salad recipe.
This is a nice example of a braise, the quintessential country technique that turns humble meats into beautifully tender dishes by cooking in low, steady heat for an extended period of time. This recipe is more forgiving than coq au vin, the well-known French classic, and yields sunnier results. Get our Chicken Basquaise recipe.
Watch: How to Clean Enamel Cookware
A classic bistro dish, typical of the traditional style of casual restaurant that proliferated in Paris and other French cities in the 19th century. The Bearnaise is a variation on one of French cuisine’s five mother sauces, the emulsion of egg yolks and butter known as Hollandaise. Get our Pepper-Crusted Filet Mignon with Bearnaise Sauce recipe.
Potato gratins with various slight twists are essential preparations, humble and elegant in equal measure, a quality that marks a lot of French cooking. Here, the twist is chèvre, fresh, tangy goat cheese that gives his recipe its freshness. Get our Potato Gratin with Chèvre recipe.
These rich, delicate custards are a hallmark of French cooking. They combine a small roster of perfect, quality ingredients with careful technique—over- or underdone custard is a sad thing, and the line between just right and way wrong is thinner than you’d think). Get our Burnt Caramel Custard (Pots de Crème) recipe.
Galettes are fruit pies, only easier and more rustic. They rely on flaky pastry—an essential of the French repertoire—and also on buying fruit that’s at the height of its season, perfectly ripe, delicious, and ecvonomical (another strong value of French cooking). Get our Apple Galette recipe.
This is it, the pinnacle of French technique. A proper soufflé takes practice, and a determination to serve it the second it comes out of the oven. The texture should be ethereally airy, with a moist (though not raw) interior that acts as a kind of luxurious sauce for the firmer ring of soufflé around the edges of the ramekin. Since this recipe magnifies the taste of the chocolate, buying a good one is essential. Get our Chocolate Soufflé recipe.
Header image photo by Ed Anderson / Leite's Culnaria.