When we think of French cuisine, complexity is usually what comes to mind first and foremost. Some dishes might be flambéed, triple-sautéed, double-broiled, and thrice thrown into an abyss of butter and cream and drowned in red wine à la Camembert—wait, did you catch any of that? Because this mélange of culinary terms can quickly grow overwhelming, a lot of us have made it far in life by simply pretending we know about French food, even though we absolutely don’t. If you live in quiet fear of being asked what exactly coq au vin is, this list is for you. Let’s walk through ten beloved French dishes and learn what makes each one great.
If there’s one thing the French know how to do, it’s fancy up a dish. The evidence lies in the Croque Monsieur, an elevated grilled cheese sandwich with a few tweaks. Whereas a grilled cheese is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a Croque Monsieur consists of a blend of Parmesan and Gruyere cheeses nestled with ham in between two slices of buttered bread. After the sandwich is assembled, it’s commonly coated in béchamel, a white sauce made from flour, milk, butter, and nutmeg used in countless French recipes. (The quick homemade version often skips this step for simplicity.) The name Croque Monsieur literally translates to “crunch mister,” a nod to its crispy exterior once it’s baked in the oven. The sandwich becomes a Croque Madame if an egg is cracked on top while cooking, since the topping looks like a bit like a sun hat (peak French humor).
Maybe you’ve heard of this classic dish from the Burgundy region of France, but your mind all but gives up on pronunciation by the time you reach the second “B.” A literal mouthful, bœuf Bourguignon is a hefty beef stew made with red wine and vegetables. Carrots, whole mushrooms, pearl onions, and baby potatoes are incorporated into a pot of tenderly cooked, fall-apart slabs of beef. Red wine (such as, you guessed it, a Burgundy) flavors the meat as it simmers with various spices. Typically served over mashed potatoes, bœuf Bourguignon is so French-sounding—and French-tasting—that you can’t forget it.
Steak tartare can be off-putting if you don’t know in advance that you’re going to be served raw meat—yet this is an essential part of it, and anyone who enjoys their burgers on the rare side would do well to give it a try. Composed of a single raw ground beef patty and topped with a raw egg yolk, steak tartare is usually served chilled or at room temperature. It’s seasoned with dijon mustard, capers, cornichons (those adorably tiny pickles), salt, and black pepper, and mixed with the yolk topping to create a richly flavored dish. It’s relatively simple to create, though most people perceive it as high-end food—which can certainly be true, as it’s safer to use pricey top-quality meat. If it sounds jarring to tackle a plate of uncooked beef, know that steak tartare usually comes with a side of roasted potatoes or bread to take the edge off.
Coq au vin
It’s on the menu, and you know this dish involves chicken somehow, but you aren’t ready to bet your life on what else is in it. In English, coq au vin quite literally means “rooster in wine.” A traditional coq au vin consists of poultry slow-cooked in red wine with an array of vegetables such as thick-cut carrots, mushrooms, and baby onions. The French bacon known as lardon is also added, along with garlic and thyme. A flour and butter roux is used to thicken this stew-like meal, and if you’re catching on that this dish shares similarities with bœuf Bourguignon, you’re on the right track to becoming a French food pro.
Behold foie gras, a savory French delicacy that translates to “fatty liver.” It’s long been seen as a controversial dish because of how it’s produced: Ducks are force-fed to develop a larger liver, which is then removed and pureed. It’s typically used as a spread on breads or crackers, as it has a firm but buttery texture; it can also be placed in a flaky crust and baked. Though some find it objectionable on the grounds of animal welfare, foie gras remains widely consumed in France.
Bouillabaisse is comically lengthy name for a traditional Southern French fish stew. Known for its gorgeous bright orange and golden colors, the dish features carrots, celery, and onions cooked in a dutch oven with tomato, white wine, and, of course, butter. The essence of a bouillabaisse is that it contains multiple kinds of seafood all at once. Shrimp and scallops are included and then the mixture is blended and strained as a seafood stock, at which point more types of fish are incorporated into the stock, and later garlic crouton is added on top, similar to how toasted bread is added on top of French onion soup.
If you’ve heard of Coquilles Saint-Jacques, you must really like seafood. Coquille is the French word for “seashell,” and this dish is a light and creamy scallop-centric meal served in a large seashell as its plate. A traditional French Coquilles Saint-Jacques is made with butter, flour, white wine, lemon, shallots, and crème fraîche (a French version of sour cream) and is topped with gruyère, chives, salt, and pepper. You’ll find that many French home cooks make this simple but mighty dinner at home; it’s a creatively executed dish that ends up looking extravagant.
What is escargot if not the infamous Eastern French dish you know as snails served on a special plate with tiny forks and an unidentified green sauce? Escargot is the French word for “snail,” and the dish has less to it than you might think. The snails, which are cooked in the oven, are smothered in a sauce composed of butter, parsley, salt, pepper, sometimes wine, and herbs such as thyme. Traditionally held with tongs designed to securely grasp the rounded shell while consuming, escargot is both a country dish and high-end restaurant delicacy. While the French home cook might use canned snails, restaurants in France usually harvest snails from the wild, since access to fresh snails is common in the countryside and in mountainous regions of Europe.
If the 2007 Pixar movie comes to mind, you have perhaps spent the last 15 years equating ratatouille with elaborate cooking techniques only a top rat chef could manage. On the contrary, ratatouille is a humble dish from Southern France with peasant origins, mainly composed of cooked vegetables. The traditional recipe features eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, and squash tossed in olive oil with seasonings like Herbs de Provence and slow-cooked. The vegetables aren’t always neatly sliced rounds placed in a meticulous mound like Remy served to the harsh dining critic Anton Ego; rather, ratatouille as most French people know it is composed of cubed veggies thrown into a pot like a stew.
The jambon-beurre is the quintessential French on-the-go snack, either despite or because of its simplicity: It’s a sandwich consisting of only ham and butter on baguette. At its most basic the jambon-beurre is just that, made with a specialized cured ham known as jambon de Paris and served warmed. At its most elaborate, you may find sliced cornichons and dijon mustard burrowed inside. It’s popular in Paris because it’s ridiculously portable, but don’t let that stop you from making it at home—you can recreate this sandwich using just those three simple ingredients. Apart from sandwiches sold at fast food establishments, the jambon-beurre is the most eaten sandwich in France.