(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.
“French cooking is, at its core, about making beautiful, refined food out of simple ingredients,” said Maryann Tebben, author of “Savoir-Faire: A History of Food in France.”
“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.
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.
Not a fan of beef? Another French favorite, coq au vin, takes the Burgundian preparation and gives chicken the leading role instead.
With a long name and an even longer list of ingredients, bouillabaisse is seaside city Marseille’s gift to France’s culinary canon. The soup, once a poor man’s dish and now a mainstay on many a Michelin-starred menu, elevates the catch of the day beyond your standard soupe de poisson.
According to Marseille’s bouillabaisse charter, in an attempt to standardize the ingredients and preparation of the classic dish, the soup must include at least four of six specific fish selections that are cut up in front of the diners. Alongside optional crustaceans and a spicy broth, no self-respecting bouillabaisse is complete without a topper of croutons dipped in rouille, a peppery garlic sauce.
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.
Legend has it, sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin were working in a restaurant in the Loire Valley of France in the late 19th century when Stéphanie was overwhelmed in the kitchen by the influx of customers during hunting season. She accidentally left the apples in her apple pie cooking too long and tried to salvage it by covering the apples in pastry and baking. The resulting dish — steaming apples under caramelized sugar with a flaky crust — was so popular it was eventually named after the sisters: la tarte des demoiselles Tatin.
Though tarte Tatin is sure to be delicious anywhere you try it, it might be best sampled where it originated.
“Northern France is very known for its apples,” said David Lebovitz, author of “The Sweet Life in Paris.” “They have spectacularly good cooking apples.”
French onion soup
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.
The gratin “technique (is) about making something in a shallow dish that will bake and get croûte on top — which means creating a crust — and that crust can be cheese, can be bread, can be all kinds of things. But a nice crust,” explained Boulud, who opened Le Gratin, an entire restaurant dedicated to highlighting the technique, in New York. The most popular dish at the restaurant is another cheesy French favorite, gratin Dauphinois, or gratin potatoes.
Escargot is perhaps one of the most famous — or infamous, depending on who you ask — French dishes around. The delicacy, which can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire, might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely worth a try for the adventurous eater.
The classic recipe involves snails with parsley and garlic butter. The snails are served warm either inside their shells or in a specific dish fashioned with six to 12 small compartments. Often the dish comes with some bread to help soak up the rich, buttery flavor. These aren’t your average backyard snails either. The most popular snail species for escargot are the particularly well-regarded Burgundy snail, which is highly protected in France.
Aptly named after the French term souffler, meaning “to puff up,” the experience of eating a chocolate soufflé or one of its savory counterparts is a bit like biting into a cloud. The rich yet lightweight dessert has been gracing French tables since the 18th century, but was really perfected by esteemed chef and arbiter of haute cuisine Marie-Antoine Carême in the mid-1800s.
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.
Not every French dish has a whole day devoted to it, but then again, the crepe isn’t just any French dish. As France’s biggest-hitting entry to the global pancake catalog, crepes have a uniquely versatile quality. They can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner; with buckwheat flour, a tradition of the Brittany region, or more widely used white flour; folded into triangles or rolled into logs.
The paper-thin pancake is prepared rather theatrically on large griddles at crêperies. You can now find crepes made with any combination of sweet and savory ingredients, but crêpes suzette are still a popular iteration, consisting of caramelized sugar, orange juice and, for a flash of drama, flambeed liqueur.
Salade Niçoise is a celebration of the fresh, colorful produce available throughout the French Riviera, where the dish originated. Elegantly plated on a tray or large platter, the salad features a bed of lettuce and a simple olive oil dressing or vinaigrette that lets the real star of the dish truly shine — the crudités, or raw vegetables.
A purist’s salade Niçoise might feature a seasonal selection of fresh tomatoes, black olives, capers and green beans, all served cold, with the optional addition of anchovies or tuna. But as the salad’s popularity has grown outside of Nice, a number of ingredients have become common additions, like hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, red bell peppers, fava beans and cucumbers.
The sandwich version of this salad, pan bagnat, is also worth a try. Picture all the delicious ingredients of a Niçoise salad tucked into pain de campagne, or French sourdough.
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.
It’s hard to pinpoint when and even where the first crème brûlée might have been made. There were similar recipes floating around France, Spain and England dating back as early as the fifth century. But one thing for sure is that humans throughout history have always loved a good, creamy dessert. And who are we to disagree with 1,500 years of good reviews?
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.
This dish is so beloved by the French, Castelnaudary has its own brotherhood to defend it– the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet. “The purpose of the Grande Confrérie is to serve the prestige, disseminate and defend the reputation of Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, ensuring respect for traditions and quality,” a statement on the brotherhood’s website explains.
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 term quiche originates from the German word for cake — kuchen. This is because the first quiches were made in the Lotharingia kingdom of Germany which, during the Middle Ages, spanned several modern Western European countries.
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
What was once a method of preserving meat or vegetables before the existence of refrigerators has become one of the most famous French food preparation methods. The confit process produces juicy, tender meat with crispy skin that’s been enriched with the flavors of salt, herbs and its own fat. What’s not to love?
Confit certainly isn’t the easiest process, but it’s hard to conceive of a more delicious way to prepare duck. First, the raw meat is cured with salt and aromatics like thyme or garlic, then it’s poached at a low temperature for several hours until the fat is fully rendered. The meat can then be stored with the fat in an airtight container for weeks or even months until you’re ready to fry it up and eat it.
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.
Among so many heavy hitters featuring beef and poultry in the French culinary tradition, there is still one famous entrée suitable for vegetarians: ratatouille. From the French word touille, meaning “to toss,” ratatouille originated in the southern Provence region but quickly gained popularity throughout France for its use of fresh summer vegetables.
Featuring a colorful collection of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onion and tomatoes, ratatouille can be prepared by either baking all the vegetables like a casserole or sautéing them with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. The resulting stew can be served hot or cold. It pairs great with a crusty baguette topped with an egg, Parmesan, or both, according to the James Beard Foundation.
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.”
This fish dish is fit for a king — literally. Sole meunière is said to have been a favorite of King Louis XIV during the late 1600s. The deceptively simple dish has few ingredients, but the flavor profiles are complex due to the specific techniques used to cook the fish.
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.
“The flesh is transparent. It’s absolutely delicate. It’s one of the finest things in life,” said chef Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, former personal chef to French President François Mitterrand, in the CNN Film “Julia,” the new CNN Film documentary about Julia Child. “Perfect fish in butter. It’s perfect!”
A terrine is the great dish for the most creative of chefs. Named after the earthenware pot used to mold its distinctive, loaflike shape, this dish has a specific look, but the flavor combinations are almost limitless. Make a terrine rustic with ingredients like pork and beans or go lavish with ingredients like rare game and truffles. The dish can be made with poultry or fish, or even entirely of vegetables.
The most important feature for any ingredient? Big flavor.
Not to be confused with other popular charcuterie elements like paté or rillettes, a terrine is made by layering forcemeat with any combination of additional ingredients in a terrine mold to cook slowly in a water bath. This dish can be dense enough to serve as an entrée or makes a great hors d’oeuvre with crusty bread and cornichons, which are tiny crisp pickles.
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.
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.
The bread, always a baguette sliced neatly down the center, must be freshly baked to perfection with a crunchy crust and a chewy interior. The ham is best if it’s jambon de Paris, sourced directly from the French capital, sliced thin and free from additives and preservatives. The butter, ideally directly from the northwestern Normandy region, should be lightly salted and spread generously.
Also known as the Parisien, the jambon-beurre is used as a marker of sorts for the popularity of classic French cuisine among the country’s residents. According to Maryann Tebben, an annual index measures the number of jambon-beurres purchased compared with the annual number of hamburgers, lest the country stray too far from its roots.
Blanquette de veau
A favorite of home cooks across France, blanquette de veau is a veal stew prepared en blanquette, meaning neither the meat or the butter is browned during cooking. This process produces a dish of tender meat and mellow flavors with a creamy, comforting sauce coating it all.
The white sauce is made using one of France’s biggest contributions to cooking techniques worldwide — combining melted butter with flour to create a roux. The flour acts as a thickening agent, creating a denser base, and also acts as a bonding agent between the roux and other ingredients like cheese or cream. You can thank this technique for creating the base of dishes like gumbo, some curries, and creamy mac and cheese.
Move over chicken noodle soup, there’s another dish that makes a strong claim for the perfect cold-weather dish. Pot-au-feu (meaning “pot on fire”) is a warm, simple and flavorful slow-cooked meal.
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.