French cooking is all about using precise technique and quality ingredients to create bright, concentrated flavors in a dish. One of the ways that French cooks do this is by knowing how to use seasonings. French cooking relies on getting specific tastes from flavorful ingredients including herbs and spices. The most popular French spices and herbs include:
Arguably, thyme is the herb that is most commonly associated with French cooking. Thyme is extremely fragrant and has a flavor and aroma that can be likened to a blend of oregano, mint, and marjoram with a hint of lemon zest. Thyme is versatile and French cooks use it in stews, sauces, and salads. It is the perfect complement for tomatoes, cheese, and roasted meats.
The French answer to British curry powder, Vadouvan displays the French restraint when it comes to flavor. Vadouvan uses Indian and French ingredients to create a subtle spice mix to be used on everything from vegetables to seafood. The ingredients are relatively mild and include shallots, mustard, and fenugreek.
The French use quatre epices — four spices — in a variety of different dishes including soups, roulades, and sausages. The four spices that make up this blend are black peppercorn and cloves along with nutmeg and ginger. In some blends, white peppercorns are used instead of black. Sometimes the sweet spices are switched out for others such as allspice. Black pepper is the key spice in most quatre epices blends so that the flavor profile has its mild heat and citrus notes backed up by the sweet fragrant spices.
Herbes de Provence
Another famous blend of French seasonings, herbes de Provence is a Provencal blend as you might have guessed. It is most often used as a rub for roasted meats and in soups. Herbes de Provence can include any of a range of herbs found in France including lavender, fennel, and dill. Thyme, bay leaves and sage also often wind up in the blend.
French fines herbes is another blend commonly used in France’s kitchens. The blend gets its name from its subtle flavor and includes chives, tarragon, and chervil but can also contain thyme and savory. Because the blend is relatively delicate, it depends on the herbs being fresh for them to provide the maximum amount of flavor. You should also use fines herbes at the end of cooking time to get the most from the flavor.
Another savory herb in the mint family, marjoram has Mediterranean roots and has found a home in French cooking. It is possibly more popular in France than in any other country in the region. Marjoram has woodsy notes similar to those of thyme but it is more delicate. You will sometimes see it included in some versions of herbes de Provence.
The warm, sweet nuttiness of nutmeg is essential to the flavor profiles of classic French cream sauces like bechamel. Nutmeg also gets used in various French desserts.
Another classic French herb, tarragon is best known for its use in French cuisine. It has a flavor similar to that of licorice that works particularly well in egg dishes and that can also enhance the flavors of fish and poultry. You will need tarragon if you are making a Bearnaise sauce and tarragon flavored vinegar is a popular ingredient in vinaigrettes.