French Cooking Terms Deciphered

Words: Jess Spiro

French Cooking Terms

Whether you speak English, Mandarin or Xhosa, recipes can be a minefield of French terms that can leave you saying “quoi?”. They say that if you can read, you can cook but that can be tricky if a word stumps you. Here we run through some of the trickiest French cooking terms you may come across.

Amuse bouche

Literally translated to ‘amuse the mouth’, an amuse bouche is a small plate of food served before a meal to whet the appetite. It generally has to be bite-size and is often referred to as a gift from the chef.

Anglaise

The term ‘a l’Anglaise’ refers to something cooked in an English manner, which can mean an array of manners of cooking something, as determined by the French. Mostly, you can expect to see a créme Anglaise, a simple custard and pané à l’Anglaise, a coating of seasoned egg, oil and breadcrumbs.

Au gratin

This term refers to any topping of breadcrumbs and/or cheese that is put under a grill and browned until crisp.

Au Jus

This refers to something served with a light jus (see Jus) (or sauce) made with the juices the meat has given off as it’s cooked.

Au Poivre

Au Poivre refers to something, generally steak, that is either prepared or served with a generous amount of freshly cracked black pepper. Check out this recipe for Chicken Au Poivre.

Bain-marie

Essentially a water bath or a double boiler. A bain-marie is used to cook custards and terrines very evenly and carefully. It can refer simply to a roasting tray filled with warm water or even a glass bowl suspended over a pot of gently simmering water.

Béarnaise

This sauce barely needs an introduction but is defined as a sauce made from clarified butter that is emulsified into egg yolks and white wine vinegar, which is then flavoured with tarragon. Try this recipe for Grilled Rib-eye Steak with Bearnaise Sauce.

Béchamel

Also a variation on a mother sauce, a béchamel is made by combining equal parts of flour and butter to form a roux (see Roux), and then adding milk to make a thickened creamy white sauce.

Beurre blanc

A reduction of white wine vinegar or just white wine and shallots is emulsified into cold butter off the heat to form a thick and creamy sauce.

Beurre Noir

Melted butter that is cooked until the milk solids turn a very dark brown, and usually after which time an acid is added in the form of lemon juice or vinegar.

Beurre noisette

Similar to a beurre noir (see Beurre Noir) but not cooked as far, a noisette goes to a golden or nutty colour. Sometimes capers, vinegar or herbs can be added. Try this recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi with a Sage Beurre Noisette.

Beurre manié

A direct translation in French is “kneaded butter”. This is basically is a dough, which is made of equal parts of butter and flour. It is used as a traditional thickening agent for sauces or soups.

Bisque

In modern day cuisine, bisque is generally used for a thick and creamy soup. Classically, however, a bisque is specifically related to a soup being made from the strained broth of crustaceans.

Bordelaise

A very classic variation on one of the French mother sauces, a bordelaise is made by reducing together a demi-glace, (see Demi-glace) red wine (traditionally a Bordeaux), butter and shallots, and is topped with bone marrow to serve.

Bouillabaisse

A classic French stew or soup containing several kinds of fish and shellfish. Two defining flavour components are tomato and saffron, as well as being traditionally served with a spicy, aïoli-based sauce called a rouille. Try this recipe for Bouillabaisse.

Bouillon

A clear, flavoursome broth made from gently simmering beef, chicken, vegetables and any other ingredient. Not to be confused with a stock, which is made by simmering bones.

Bouquet Garni

Is a bundle of herbs, traditionally parsley, thyme, whole black peppercorns and bay leaves, tied up in muslin cloth. Bouquet garni are used to flavour stocks, soups and sauces but are removed prior to eating.

Bourguignon

Classically, Bourguignon refers to a beef stew prepared with Burgundy red wine. Try this recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon.

Brunoise

A knife cut into cubes, a brunoise usually measures about 3mm or less.

Canapé

A small bite of food served before a meal.

Chiffonade

A knife cut where leafy herbs or vegetable are cut into long, thin strips.

Chinois

A piece of kitchen equipment used for straining soups and sauces, which has a conical shape.

Concasse

While the term can relate to any vegetable that is roughly chopped, it is mostly known for the preparation of tomatoes. A concasse tomato has been peeled and seeded and then cut into small, evenly shaped squares.

Confit

Cooking food, usually duck, at a very low temperature in its own fat. Try this recipe for Duck Confit with Olive and Red Onion Marmalade.

Consommé

A very clear, deeply flavoured stock or bouillon that has been clarified by using egg shells.

Crudité

French appetizers of raw vegetables, either served whole or sliced, alongside a zesty vinaigrette or other dipping sauce.

Dariole

Refers to a specific, cylindrical mould used for parfaits and individual desserts.

Degustation

Refers to a carefully curated meal of at least eight small dishes served one after the other. Usually found in high-end restaurants and can also be called a tasting menu.

Demi-glace

A variation on a mother sauce, where more beef stock is added to an Espagnole (see Espagnole) sauce and then reduced by half.

L’escalope

A French term for a cut of meat or fish that has a flattened shape or is very thinly sliced. An escalope is usually very tender and requires only a few seconds of sautéing (see Sauté) on both sides.

Espagnole

One of the classic mother sauces, an Espagnole is a brown sauce made from a dark roux (see Roux), a mirepoix (see Mirapoix), beef fond and beef stock.

Farce

Refers to a savoury stuffing.

Foie Gras

Foie gras is the enlarged liver of a duck or goose and is a popular delicacy in France. The animal is forcibly fattened through a special feeding technique.

Fricassee

A method of sautéing (see Sauté) and braising cuts of meat and serving with a white sauce.

Ganache

A ganache is a glaze, icing, sauce or even filling, for tarts and pastries made simply from chocolate and cream. Try this recipe for a Chocolate and Ginger Ganache Tart.

Hors d’Oeuvres

Directly translated as ‘outside the (main) work’, meaning hors d’oeuvres are small bites served before a meal.

Jardinière

Refers to a knife cut, where vegetables are cut into thick batons. Frozen vegetables are often cut into a jardiniere.

Jus

Essentially a sauce made from the pan juices that come from cooking meat. They are refined and then lightly thickened with cornstarch or arrowroot.

Macedoine

Refers to a knife cut of about 0.5 cm.

Mille-feuilles

A classic French dessert made of thin puff pastry. It directly translates to ‘a thousand layers’.

Mirepoix

Mirepoix is probably one of the most classic of French cooking terms and is something you probably make quite often and don’t even realise it. It refers to the finely chopped combination of onion, celery and carrot and is the base of most classic soups, sauces and stews.

Mise en place

Directly translates to ‘put in place’ and means the preparation of ingredients and a work station.

Nicoise

A dish that is prepared in the style of Nice, a coastal city in the South of France. Try this recipe for Poached Salmon Nicoise Salad.

En Papillote

A French cooking term that refers to the method of cooking food, usually fish, in a parcel of baking parchment. The food gently steams in its own juices, along with other aromatics.

Pate à choux

Refers to choux pastry, the pastry used for eclairs.

Paté

Paté is ground, cooked meat made into a smooth, creamy paste.

Pȃte

Pȃte refers to pastry.

Pave

Can either refer to serving food in a square of rectangular shape or a square shaped sponge filled with buttercream and coated in icing.

Petit four

A small cake made of Genoise sponge and covered in fondant icing. Literally translated to ‘small oven’, which were small compartments of large ovens where petit four cakes were traditionally baked. Try this recipe for Red Velvet Petit Fours.

Remoulade

A tart, creamy sauce made from mayonnaise, mustard, capers, chopped gherkins, anchovies and herbs. Traditionally served with veggies, cold meats, fish or shellfish.

Roux

Probably one of the most well recognised French cooking terms is ‘roux’, a is a mixture made from equal parts of fat and flour that are cooked together. This mixture acts as a thickener for soups, sauces and stews.

Sabayon

A sweet sauce made with egg yolks, sugar, and wine beaten together over heat until thickened and creamy. Can be served either hot or cold.

Sauté

Translated as ‘jump’, to sauté something is to cook it quickly over a very high heat while keeping it moving by tossing it all the time.

Soubise

A classic creamy sauce where onion purée is added to a bechamel sauce.

Soufflé

A light and fluffy egg-based dish, where beaten egg whites aid in the rising of the mixture. Can be sweet or savoury.

Velouté

A derivative of a classic mother sauce, a velouté is a creamy sauce made from a light stock thickened with a blonde roux (see Roux). Literally translated, it means velvet.

Vol-au-vent

A circular case of puff pastry filled with either veggie, fish or meat.

Now that you’ve got the hang of these French cooking terms, try some of these French recipes.

Also see our A-Z of Cooking  Terms and our Baking Glossary.

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