Essential French cooking vocabulary

Whether you’re a budding chef, enthusiastic foodie, or just trying to expand your knowledge of the French language and culture, there are two main kinds of French cooking vocabulary you need to know: cooking words commonly used in French recipes, and French cooking words that have been borrowed into English.

Let’s look at the most common words from these two groups.

French cooking words

A kitchen countertop and sink. Above it we see a shelf with dishes, bowls, and other vessels. On the left side is a mounted wall clock. The kitchen looks a bit old-fashioned and like something in a French farmhouse.

Here are some French cooking words you’ll commonly find in French recipes and other food-related writing.

General French cooking words

  • la cuisine: cooking. This includes talking about a type of cooking – for instance, la cuisine française (French cooking).  Note that cuisine can also mean “kitchen”.
  • la cuisson : cooking or baking/how something is cooked/baked.
  • le temps de cuisson: cooking/baking time.
  • une recette:  a recipe. Note that this word can have other meanings in different contexts, including “receipt”.
  • feu doux/feu moyen/feu vif: low/medium/high heat.
  • une cuillère à café (sometimes abbreviated càc):  teaspoon.
  • une cuillère à soupe (sometimes abbreviated càs):  tablespoon.
  • les ingrédients (m) – ingredients.
  • la cuisson de la viande:Doneness (How much your meat is cooked):
  • tartare/cru/crue – raw (usually served seasoned)
  • bleu – very rare
  • saignant – rare
  • À point – medium rare to medium (note that the French tend not to cook meat as thoroughly as in countries like the US
  • bien cuit – well-done
  • un fond : stock. Note that the word fond can have other meanings, depending on the context.
  • un bouillon:  broth. These are often sold in the form of cubes.
  • un soupçon de : a hint of (a very small dash of).
  • la chapelure: breadcrumbs/breading.
  • la pâte: dough or paste (not to be confused with les pâtes (pasta)).
  • un sachet de:  a small packet of…. Some cooking and baking essentials in France come in pre-packaged packets. This includes:
  • la levure chimique – baking powder
  • le sucre vanillé – vanilla sugar (used much more frequently than vanilla extract, although one can be substituted for the other (Roughly 1 ½ teaspoons of vanilla extract=1 sachet de sucre vanillé)
  • le bicarbonate de soude : baking soda.
  • un jaune d’œuf: an egg yolk.
  • les blancs d’œuf (m): – egg whites.
  • un bouquet garni: a selection of herbs sold mixed together, usually not ground up. These typically include thyme, laurel, parsley, sage, coriander, and rosemary, but the selection can vary slightly. Still, the overall taste will be what your recipe calls for.
  • fait(e)(s) maison : homemade.
  • doré(e): golden brown.
  • sucré : sweet.
  • salé : savory.

Kitchen appliances and utensils in French

If you’d like to learn more French cooking utensil vocabulary, this extensive and very specific list is a helpful resource.

French cooking verbs

A person with a rainbow-striped apron uses a rolling pin to flatten dough. We only see their forearms, hands, and the flour-covered contertop, as well as some blurry cookie cutters in the foreground.

Most of these verbs can be used on their own, but in recipes, you’ll often see them preceded by auxiliaries like faire or laisser.

There may be some grammar behind that decision in certain cases, but it also seems to be due to politeness. It’s quite direct to say Cuis la viande, instead of Faire cuire la viande

Note that the participles of most of these verbs can be used as cooking adjectives. For instance, farcir (to stuff) and farci(e)(s) (stuffed).  Many also have noun derivatives as well — for example, trancher (to slice), tranché(e)(s) (sliced), une tranche (a slice).

  • cuire: to cook/to bake.
  • chauffer: to warm.
  • préchauffer: to preheat.
  • réchauffer: to reheat.
  • porter à ébullition: to bring to a boil.
  • bouillir: to boil.
  • mijoter: to simmer. Fun fact: As this blogger points out, mijoter can also be used in figurative language to talk about someone plotting something. I love that idea of something quietly heating up.
  • faire revenir: to brown.  Unlike the other verbs on this list, when used in a cooking context, revenir is always used with faire.
  • mettre au four/enfourner: put into the oven.
  • fondre/faire fondre: to melt. Fondre is what a substance does; faire fondre (literally: make melt) is what the cook does.  
  • poêler: to cook in a frying pan.
  • frire: to fry. This verb is almost always used with faire.
  • réduire: to reduce (boil something down to thicken it).
  • rôtir: to roast.
  • cuire à la vapeur: to steam.
  • refroidir: to cool. You’ll often see this with the verb laisser (Laisser refroidir = Let cool).
  • congeler/décongeler: to freeze/to defrost.
  • ajouter: to add.
  • rajouter: to add again or in addition to other ingredients. Most French recipes will use the word rajouter. This is because, even if it’s the first or only time an ingredient is being added, other ingredients are already present. For instance, you might read something like: Verser le lait dans un bol. Rajouter le sucre. (Pour the milk into the bowl. Then add the sugar.) 
  • verser : to pour. Interestingly, this is one of the few French cooking verbs that’s usually used on its own (not with a helping verb) in recipes.
  • remuer: to stir.
  • mélanger: to mix.
  • fouetter: to whip.
  • mixer: to mix in a mixer/blender. Note that while mélanger is the general verb for “to mix”, mixer is only used when talking about mixing via a blender or mixer.
  • découper: to slice/to chop/to carve.
  • ciseler: to chop.
  • trancher: to slice.
  • hacher: to chop/to mince.
  • farcir: to stuff
  • saupoudrer: to dust/sprinkle.
  • enrober: to coat.
  • beurrer: to butter/to grease a baking pan or mold.
  • démouler: to unmold (remove from a pan or mold).
  • râper: to grate.
  • éplucher/peler: to peel.
  • assaisonner: to season.
  • étaler: to spread.
  • pétrir: to knead.
  • laisser reposer: let sit.

French cooking words in English

Duck confit sits on top of a mixture of beans, and slices of canadian bacon, as well as herbs and potatoes. The tablecloth beneath is red and white checkered, and there is a fork on the left side, and a blue and white checkered napkin rolled up above it.
Duck confit

A number of French cooking words are also used in English. Some of these are highly specific culinary terms, but there are some that you’ll come across in recipes and on restaurant menus, as well as food-related books, podcasts, reviews, and so on.

Here are some of the most common of these terms, with their correct French pronunciation.
But note that since these words are being used by English-speakers, you may not hear them pronounced this way by everyone. Depending on your local culture, you may have to tone down your French accent when you say them in order to be understood. 

  • au gratin: sprinkled with cheese or breadcrumbs.
  • au jus: meat served with a sauce or gravy made from the juices it released when cooked.
  • au poivre: seasoned with a pepper sauce or rub.
  • bain-marie: sometimes called a double boiler. A cooking process in which food is placed in a small pot in or over a larger pot of boiling water. This steams the content of the smaller pot. There are many reasons why the bain-marie technique is used.
  • chiffonade: a technique for cutting vegetables into long string-like pieces.  Unlike most of the French cooking words in English that are on this list, chiffonade is somewhat of a faux-ami. Although it can be used the same way in French, for French people, it much more commonly refers to very thinly sliced ham or other cold cuts.
  • consommé: clarified bouillon.
  • confit: food (typically meat or potatoes) that is cooked in grease or oil at a low temperature for a long period of time.
  • roux: a mixture of flour and fat that’s used to thicken a sauce.
  • sauté : food that is cooked in a frying pan and periodically tossed to move it around.
  • julienne: to cut food (usually vegetables) into thin, matchstick-like pieces.

Where can I find more French cooking vocabulary?

The words on this list are the most common French cooking words you’ll come across. But there are a lot more to discover, especially if you’re interested in cooking or baking at an advanced or professional level.

If you’re looking for more French cooking vocabulary, this webpage includes a list of extremely specific French cooking verbs (as well as many of the ones covered here).  And for cooking experts, this very extensive list could be useful.

What to know if you want to follow a French recipe

A person wearing a black jacket and jeans seasons a cut of meat on a wooden cutting board. The countertop around it is cluttered with glasses, a bottle of vegetable oil, and salt. In the background, the person's other hand is reaching towards the skillet, where they may also be sprinkling seasoning.

You’ve got the vocabulary to follow a basic French recipe. But there are a few other things you should know before you get cooking (or baking).

Most French recipes use the metric system.

Remember that most French recipes will use the metric system. Luckily, fellow Americans can easily convert these measurements into the empiric system by doing an online search or even asking a virtual assistant like Alexa or Google Home to do the conversion. 

If you’re following a recipe with a lot of measurements, it’s a good idea to do the conversions and write them down before you get started.

You may have to substitute packaging or ingredients.

Another thing you’ll find is that some French ingredients are packaged differently where you live, or just flat-out may not be available. A good example of this is sucre vanillé ; where I’m from in America, it’s much more typical to use vanilla extract.

If you can’t find an equivalent ingredient or you aren’t sure of how much of a substitute to use, again, an online search will usually give you good results. Another technique is to see if a recipe for the dish you want to make exists in your native language. Even if you want to follow the French one, the native language recipe could shed some light on ingredient substitutions.

You can use French cooking/recipe videos, or even watch them for practice.

Many recipes aren’t just written down; countless professional, semi-professional, and amateur cooks make videos. These can provide a helpful visual aid, although if you don’t have an advanced level of French, or if you prefer to learn vocabulary by seeing it written down, written recipes may be a better option.

Still, French cooking videos are certainly an excellent way to hear these words and watch how the dish you’re interested in is prepared, so you could plan to follow a written recipe in French, but also watch a video that goes along with it, or even a video from another source, for practice.

Not all French recipes are traditional.

One last thing to know is that like many cultures, the current trend for French chefs of all levels of expertise is to “modernize” or do their own spin on traditional recipes. This can be a fun way to discover a new approach, but it’s not so great if you just want to make traditional coq au vin (trust me!). So, if you want to be sure that you’re following a traditional French recipe, do a search for [name of dish/dessert] and “traditionnel(le)”. 

Another be sure you’re making the traditional version of a dish or dessert is to look it up on Wikipedia. Many typical French foods and meals have entries there, and you’ll usually find their typical ingredients (as well as regional variations) listed. You can keep that in mind when searching for your recipe.

Where can I find French recipes?

You don’t have to seek out a French cookbook or French chef to find a great French recipe. The internet is a perfect resource.

There are so many websites that feature French recipes, from French magazines’ websites, to lifestyle and cooking blogs, to French cooking videos on YouTube, to sites like Marmiton, where users post recipes (and rate them, as well).

You can even look for recipes with particular modifications by including terms like végétarien (vegetarian), sans gluten (gluten free), or my personal favorite, facile (easy), in your search. What a time to be alive!

Do French people always eat home-cooked meals?

An adult woman, probably the mom, stands behind a little girl and puts her hands over the girl's, as they mix or knead something in a ceramic baking dish. In the background, we see a kitchen shelf and another little girl looking on.

In an article about French stereotypes, I shared what might seem like a sad truth with you guys: Although France is famous for its refined cuisine, not all French people always sit down to an exquisite, five-star meal at home.

In fact, while the average French person eats 75% of their meals at home, numerous studies show that as the world gets more fast-paced and global, French people are taking less time to prepare food. Nowadays, many families will sit down to at least a few frozen or pre-prepared meals in a given week.

This doesn’t necessarily mean junk food or TV dinners, though. For instance, Picard is a famous French chain that only sells frozen food. While some of it is junk food level, there are also tons of things like frozen veggies and lean meats and fish.

I hope that reading this doesn’t make you worry that French cuisine will disappear. The traditions are still alive, and people still continue to cook for their families, friends, and simply for themselves if they enjoy it.

And that goes for baking, too. In fact, making crepes or an easy cake recipe is a typical rainy-day activity for French parents and grandparents to do with young kids. (My family’s personal favorite is this gâteau au yaourt).

If you’d like to keep the tradition of French cooking alive, why not try to make some French recipes?  Now you know basic French cooking vocabulary and how to find French recipes online – so why not give it a go?

Bon appétit!


Do you have a favorite French recipe? Feel free to share it in the comments!

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

4 thoughts on “Essential French cooking vocabulary”

  1. Very useful article for me as I love cooking partly because of ‘besoin’, there is no restaurant in this town, Vancouver, WA and most eating places are fast-food, and they are not restaurants, period. I made copies so that I can go over many times. Thank you. Midori

    Reply
    • Salut Midori, I’m glad that you found this article useful, and that you love to cook. That’s an especially good thing considering the fact that you don’t have many restaurants around you that you like. I hope these lists help you discover lots more French recipes to make at home!

      Reply

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