Cooking the French classics starts with great ingredients. So you'll need to know what you’re going to need when you’re doing your shopping. By stocking up on the essentials for your pantry you’ll be able to reach for everything you need to cook beautiful and delicious French dishes at home.
As part of our series, The Secrets of French Cuisine, we show you how to prepare classic French dishes in an easy step-by-step way. And with this guide to your French Pantry 101, you can stock your kitchen with all you need from herbs and spices, proteins, bakery and the basic equipment for French food alchemy at home.
Escargots are a favourite of the French and it’s worth sourcing the best ones you can. They may not be readily available in your local market, so this one requires a little research, but once you have a decent escargots supplier, you’ll make them a regular part of your cooking.
Pastrami is readily available at your deli counter or butcher - the cured meat is essential for your comforting croque monsieur. Beef stock and fish stock are essential for French cooking and it’s always best to make your own. If you don’t have space or time to do it, source the highest possible store-bought quality you can. Stock is the foundation of all good cooking. For your eggs, find the freshest free-range eggs possible, ideally from your local farmer, or even better from your own chickens.
Beef cheeks are an under-rated cut that offer great value, and when slow-cooked are a meaty, tender dish that will always satisfy. Lobster is not cheap and can present particular challenges when cooking, but it is still the most desirable ingredient when it comes to French cuisine, and one that makes a special occasion. Again, source ethically, from a specialist fishmonger, the same goes for your shrimp, mussels, clams and white fish like cod, halibut, sea bream, and sea bass.
The quality of your meat can’t be overstated in its importance when you’re buying chicken breast, or veal/Beef tenderloin. Duck fat is an irreplaceable cooking fat and is available at your specialist butcher.
Saffron, while pricey is one of those spices that completely transforms a dish, and the better the saffron the better the results. Persian saffron is regarded as the best in the world, but Afghani and Spanish saffron will serve you very well also. Invest in a bottle of high-quality sherry vinegar and you’ll use it in many different recipes to add sweetness and acidity. Onion soup is a useful pantry staple, so learn how to make it yourself. Onions are always available and are exceptional value.
Sweet, smoked paprika can be considered a pantry essential. Consider the best you can get your hands on, but Spanish is usually best. Espelette pepper is a French capsicum pepper from the Espelette region, you should be able to source it at your speciality food store and there are online sources if not. Tomato paste should be easily found in your local supermarket as is a vegetable oil such as sunflower. Bay leaves can be added for an important layer of flavour - buy in bulk as they last and you’ll use them again and again. Buy fresh nutmeg if you can and grate it into your cooking, you’ll notice the difference, but dry, powdered nutmeg will suffice if you can’t find it.
Always source the best extra virgin olive oil you can as it will affect everything you cook. Generally Italian and Spanish olive oils are superior, but it depends where they come from. Not all salts are equal, and big-flaked sea salt makes an immeasurable difference, as does fresh black peppercorns for grinding.
AP flour, otherwise known as All-purpose flour, should be high quality. Look for the artisan flour in your market, preferably organically produced, with a high protein/gluten content. Rice flour and corn starch are other grain products that should be easy to come by. Capers and gherkins should be always in your fridge. Pommery mustard is French wholegrain mustard, but any wholegrain mustard will suffice for boosting sauces or adding a dollop to just about anything.
When cooking with red wine or white wine, the general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t drink it, then you shouldn’t cook with it. Try and use French wines from the region of the dish you’re cooking. Pernod or pastis adds a wonderful aniseed flavour to your cooking.
Some of the recipes in The Secrets of French Cuisine call for baked goods. Sourdough bread is of course available to buy in your local bakery but it’s always better to make your own, and in case you haven’t caught the lockdown sourdough wave, here’s how to get started with your starter.
Brioche is a French sweet bread with a high egg and butter content, which gives it a rich flavour and crumbly texture, and the French baguette is a staple of the French kitchen.
French cooking is built on rich and creamy dairy products, from milk and cheeses, to cream and butter. Butter should be from grass-fed cows - search for French butter if possible, but if you can’t find it, look for unsalted, yellow, rich butter from the UK, Ireland or artisan butter makers. Milk and cream should be full fat, or even 35% in the case of cream, and organically produced where possible. The three cheeses you’ll need for these recipes are the classics, Comté, Gruyère and emmental.
Onions are fundamental to French cooking and they provide the base upon which almost everything is built. You will need to source shallots, Spanish, red and pearl onions. You'll also need potatoes, kohlrabi, fennel, carrots and radish. Look for them in season. Use fresh tomatoes when they’re in season, otherwise high-quality Italian tinned tomatoes can be used instead. Baby gems, often called little gems, should be available at your local market as well as leeks.
Your herbs and aromatics are crucial to creating complex flavours and you will need thyme, garlic, lemon and rosemary.