20 classic French dishes everyone needs to try
(CNN) — The roots of French cooking run deep. The foundations of the country’s culinary empire were laid as early as the mid-1600s when chef François Pierre La Varenne penned his hugely influential “Le Cuisinier François” recipe book, emphasizing regional and seasonal ingredients, highlighting complementary flavors, and beginning to document its terms and techniques.
“There is some mystery and magic to French cuisine that still draws people in. Even the basics — a perfect baguette, flaky pastry, potatoes simmered in cream — are astonishingly good even if we can’t quite figure out what makes them so delicious.”
The impacts of France’s culinary contributions have been widespread. When famed TV chef Julia Child tried sole meunière for the first time in 1948 at La Couronne restaurant in Rouen, she was overcome by the simultaneous simplicity and delicacy of French cooking.
The dish inspired Child to pursue a career in cooking that subsequently prompted an entire generation of Americans to throw out the TV dinners and gelatin dessert molds and return to fresh, flavorful foods made with whole ingredients.
Child’s experience was not unique. There is a reason, after all, that so many of the words we use to describe a lover of good food — gourmand, gourmet, gastronome — are French in origin.
“French cuisine has been explored by generations and generations of chefs, home cooks, passionate people like Julia (Child), and food writers,” said Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, owner of 14 restaurants worldwide. “And French cuisine keeps inspiring people. It is entertaining. It is delicious. It is accessible. It is possible.”
Whether it’s country fare or haute cuisine that inspires, French food is rife with dishes that could captivate even the most discerning of critics. Take a look at 20 of them.
Boeuf Bourguignon: Julia Child called it the “stew of stews.”
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Is there possibly a more French way to prepare beef than to marinate it in red wine? Named boeuf Bourguignon after the famed red wine from the Burgundy region of France, this dish combines a nice, fatty cut of beef with a dry pinot noir and plenty of fresh vegetables to create a hearty and indulgent stew.
It has been the focus of many discussions over which cuts of beef and types of wine create the best flavor profiles. But the most important ingredient for success is patience — like any good stew, boeuf Bourguignon is best when left overnight before serving.
Bouillabaisse: This Provençal dish is an elevated take on the catch of the day.
Tarte Tatin: The rustic upside-down caramelized apple tart has deep, buttery flavor.
This list of classic French dishes would be incomplete without the inclusion of something from the country’s extensive repertoire of patisserie. Though not as refined or architectural as some treats seen in the windows of French sweet shops, the buttery, simmering tarte Tatin, essentially an upside-down caramelized apple tart, is famous around the world for its rich flavor and unique history.
Though tarte Tatin is sure to be delicious anywhere you try it, it might be best sampled where it originated.
French onion soup
French onion soup: The cozy, brothy soup is topped with bread and melted cheese.
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Onion soup is not a new invention or even a dish that can be directly tied to France — some of the earliest iterations of it can be traced back to ancient Rome — but the most famous version? The version you think of when you think “onion soup”? The version you order to start off your meal made with beef stock, onions, toasted bread and ooey-gooey Gruyère cheese? That’s all France.
The element that really sets this soup apart from other, less indulgent onion-based options is the layer of cheese that tops the steaming broth. That comes from baking the soup in a broiler to melt the cheese and produce what the French call au gratin.
Escargot: Snails with parsley and garlic butter are a French delicacy.
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Chocolate soufflé: This rich yet lightweight dessert is a challenge to master but well worth the effort.
Though notoriously difficult to prepare, the soufflé has a relatively simple ingredient list. The distinctive airy texture comes from separating the egg whites from the yolk and whipping them into a stiff meringue before folding them back into the chocolate batter. The baking time and cooking temperature is specific, and easy to get wrong, but the payoff is immediate — soufflés are served hot and fresh from the oven.
Crepes: Ultrathin pancakes can be served with sweet or savory.
Salade Niçoise: This dish is a celebration of fresh, colorful produce at its peak.
Crème brûlée: Fire is required for this caramelized dessert.
Every bite of a crème brûlée is an exercise in opposites. The sweet vanilla custard flavor contrasted with the almost bitter flavor of the bruléed topping; the crunch of the caramelized sugar against the smooth, creamy texture of the custard underneath; the gentle water bath used to bake the custard compared with the dramatic blowtorch flame used to melt the sugar — in this dish opposites definitely attract.
Cassoulet: The earthy stew is the heartiest of hearty French dishes.
Perhaps the heartiest of hearty French dishes is the cassoulet. A bean-centric ragout that originated in the southern town of Castelnaudary, the cassoulet can have different ingredients, depending on the region. In Castelnaudary, the white beans are prepared with duck confit, pork and sausage. Carcassonne features gamey meat like mutton. Toulouse adds a bread crumb topping.
The general and historical premise is the same — take all the hearty and edible ingredients available and put them in a pot or, more specifically, an earthenware cassole.
Quiche Lorraine: A butter crust and savory egg custard make this a winning dish.
Creamy eggs, smoky bacon, flaky pastry crust — the quiche Lorraine is the quintessential French brunch item. But what has become a staple item at any decent French bistro or boulangerie had a rather tumultuous start.
The egg-and-cream custard pie was beloved in the Lothringen region, which was later annexed by France to become, you guessed it, Lorraine. The borders changed, but the dish stuck around. Now, quiches are served worldwide with any number of delicious and inventive flavor combinations.
Confit de canard
Confit de canard: The slow-cooked duck will have meat so tender it falls off the bone.
This technique can easily go awry, but when done right it produces a cut of duck that’s nutty in flavor and fall-off-the-bone tender.
Ratatouille: The colorful, tangy vegetable dish is a Provençal specialty (and also a great movie).
Profiteroles: What’s better than a cream puff? A cream puff covered with chocolate.
Beautiful, sweet and small enough to eat more than is probably advisable, profiteroles come in any assortment of flavors. Filled with vanilla custard, cream or even ice cream, these little cream puffs can be topped with chocolate sauce, fruit or just served plain.
The airy, delicate pastry is pâte à choux, or choux pastry. One of the backbones of French patisserie, choux is the dough used for éclairs, beignets, the Paris-Brest and more. It’s made by cooking flour with water, milk and butter before mixing in the eggs. The resulting dough is wet and pipable and puffs up when baked.
Because of their simplicity, profiteroles are a common dessert taught young in French homes, David Lebovitz explained. “French cooking is very technique oriented and pâte à choux is a very easy technique to master.”
Sole meunière: This fish dish showcases one of France’s most iconic ingredients: butter.
For the most classic preparation, the Dover sole is the fish of choice because of its firm flesh and fresh flavor. The sole is breaded with flour and sautéed in butter until delicately crisp and golden, then topped with parsley and sizzling brown butter, or beurre noisette, which has a rich, nutty flavor.
Terrine: A loaflike shape defines this dish, but you can experiment with many flavor combinations.
The most important feature for any ingredient? Big flavor.
Steak frites: This simple and universally loved meal of steak and fries pairs well with red wine.
Try to name a more classic combination than steak and potatoes. Since its origins in France and Belgium, steak frites has been a centerpiece of brasserie and bistro menus throughout Europe — and for good reason. The elements are simple and universally loved: a sizzling cut of beefsteak with a side of piping-hot, crispy fries.
The steak is often served with a side of creamy béarnaise. Made from clarified butter, herbs and egg yolks, the sauce creates a rich accompaniment to the juicy cut of rib eye or porterhouse. Paired with a nice red wine to cut through the heavy flavors, this dish becomes the ultimate casual dinner entrée.
Jambon-beurre: Assemble good-quality ham, butter and a baguette — nothing more and nothing less.
The jambon-beurre is exactly what it claims to be: jambon, or ham, layered on a coating of beurre — butter — between two slices of bread, nothing more and nothing less. The simplicity of this sandwich forces its maker to use only the best ingredients because every element is as important as the last.
Blanquette de veau
Blanquette de veau: Tender meat in a creamy, comforting sauce is a go-to dish for French home cooks.
Pot-au-feu: The beef and vegetable stew is the perfect cold-weather dish.
Considered a national dish of France, pot-au-feu has no definitive recipe, and many regions of France have their own versions. It’s generally made with meat, root vegetables, herbs, spices and bone marrow, which are prepared together but served in separate courses: the marrow starter, followed by the broth and then finally the meat and vegetables.
A large helping of pot-au-feu is thought to epitomize the spirit of French cooking — that sharing food, wine and conversation with a table full of loved ones is what makes life worth living.