How to Stock Your Pantry Like the French

With the right ingredients on hand, you’ll be able to whip up French classics like coq au vin, salade Niçoise, and chocolate mousse whenever you want.

Overhead view of french pantry essentials
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Well over a decade ago, when I was getting to know my then-boyfriend, now-husband in 2010—a tall, serious man from Gascony—I wanted to cook traditional French recipes to connect with him better. I first consulted Julia Child’s cookbook to make her famous boeuf bourguignon, but found it to be quite complicated. Then, I consulted a French cooking magazine that had a much simpler recipe and ended up with a dish that my husband still raves about to this day. That dish helped dissipate any fear I had about tackling French cuisine. After 14 years of successfully plying my husband with French classics, I can confidently say it’s harder to correctly pronounce blanquette de veau (veal stew) or gratin dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) than it is to make them.  

French cuisine is often regarded as a benchmark of culinary excellence, with much attention paid to the savoir-faire, or know-how, of the country’s artisan bakers, celebrated chefs, and world-renowned cooking institutions. There’s a cloud of romanticism that surrounds French food, and the idea of tackling these fancy, often complicated recipes at home can be intimidating, to say the least. But with the right ingredients on hand, it’s easy to get started.

Overhead view of French Pantry ingredients
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

In France, my in-laws visit the marché (farmers market) at least once a week, pick up daily baguettes, and cook almost every meal at home. I always marvel at the ease with which my mother-in-law can whip up three-course meals with just a few meat and vegetable purchases from the market. At home in Los Angeles, I take my pantry cues from my French family, whose cupboards seem to always have just what we need. If you’re itching to start cooking a la Française, this list is for you—you’ll be equipped to throw together a myriad of Gallic gourmet dishes, both sweet and savory. 

Pantry

Dijon Mustard

This pungent, tangy mustard was created in the mid-1800s in the Burgundy region of France and is used as a condiment for sandwiches, as well as in marinades, dressings, and sauces like gribiche and steak au poivre. True Dijon mustard, per French requirement, is made from brown seeds (Brassica juncea) or black ones (Brassica nigra) grown in Dijon, but because mustard seeds are largely imported into France to keep up with demand, many French homes will use a Dijon-style mustard from brands like Amora or Maille. If you’re searching for a genuine Dijon mustard in the States, you may be able to find a jar of Edmond Fallot, the only large producer still making their mustard entirely using Dijon seeds. I always keep a 500-gram crock of this brand on hand as I prefer 100% Dijon-made mustard, but you may have an easier time finding Maille in the States.

Overhead view of mustard
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Vinegar

In a country that produces a ton of wine and cider, it makes sense that there is also a thriving vinegar production. Typically made of leftover or over-oxidized wine (or cider), French vinegars come in an array of flavors—white wine, red wine, raspberry, quince, and more. A staple for making vinaigrette and marinade, vinegar is also an excellent addition to certain sauces to impart freshness and acidity, like in a sweet-and-sour gastrique. I always keep red wine vinegar on hand for salad dressing, and though it’s not French, sherry vinegar is commonly used in southwestern France—it's slightly milder and can be more pleasant for those with palates that are more sensitive to sour flavors.

Dried Herbs and Spices

A typical French household will have a selection of dried herbs and spices that are used again and again in everyday cooking.

Overhead view of herbs in small bowls
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee
  • Thyme adds a citrusy, floral quality to roast chicken and sautéed mushrooms. 
  • Nutmeg is an essential ingredient in béchamel sauce and can add a touch of warmth to soups and stews, like blanquette de veau and boeuf bourguignon
  • Bay leaves are used as part of a bouquet garni, or bundle of herbs, (along with fresh parsley and thyme) to impart flavor to stocks and other dishes like navarin d’agneau (lamb stew) or pot-au-feu
  • Piment d'espelette is made from peppers grown in the French Basque countryside that are dried and ground into flakes or a powder. Similar to paprika but with just a touch of heat, it’s typically one of the spiciest ingredients in a French spice cabinet. I use piment d’espelette in poulet Basquaise (Basque-style chicken) mostly, but it’s super versatile and can be used wherever you might add black pepper, like on a steak, over roasted chicken, and even on veggies.
  • Herbes de Provence is a multi-purpose dried herb blend typically made of marjoram, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, fennel, and thyme—plants found along the Mediterranean coast. Its fragrant notes and complex flavor profile are excellent in a marinade or as a dry rub on fish and chicken.

Stock and Demi-Glace

Ideally, we’d all have time to make stocks and demi-glace from scratch for soups, stews, and sauces. In reality, many households—including mine!—rely on powdered versions from Knorr or Maggi for convenience, though they may lack the depth, flavor, and gelatin content that gives richness to homemade versions. If you prefer non-powdered versions, you can keep pre-portioned homemade stock in the freezer, whether chicken stock or beef stock, and look for jarred demi-glace that can be diluted to your preferred concentration.

Dark Chocolate

France’s proximity to Switzerland and Belgium means that good quality chocolate is widely available. Aside from being an excellent snack, dark chocolate is used for popular French sweets like mousse au chocolat, pot de crème, and mi-cuit chocolat (also known as chocolate lava cake). It’s also a surprise addition to certain beef-based stews, like boeuf bourguignon. I like to keep a bar made of at least 70% cacao on hand, like Côte d’Or's 70% Dark Chocolate Bar, for cooking or snacking. 

Overhead view of dark chocolate
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Preserved Ingredients

Food preservation is huge in France, with some of the most popular foods made in bulk and stored for use throughout the year. 

Overhead view of jellies and pickles and olives
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee
  • Jams, jellies, and preserves, both store-bought or homemade, are often eaten in the morning slathered on a piece of toasted, buttered baguette. When I’m in France, I love to pick up ultra-local jams made of mirabelle plums or rosehip, but in the US, I buy Bonne Maman preserves, especially when they’re on sale.
  • Olives are a popular happy hour snack, and can also be used in tagines or made into tapenade. Bright green Picholine olives are my favorite, and you can’t go wrong with olives de Nice, a black olive similar to kalamata that shines in a salade Niçoise.
  • Cornichons are a mini pickle that can be added to a French ham and butter sandwich (jambon beurre) or served alongside melted raclette in the winter.
  • Duck confit is a specialty of southwestern France, made of seasoned duck legs simmered and then preserved in their own fat. They are used in cassoulet or served alongside a green salad and crispy potatoes. 

Jarred or Tinned Fish

Seafood conserves are increasingly popular across Europe, but you’re more likely to find only a few types at home. Anchovies are very popular in southeastern France, along the Mediterranean, and are used to make a quick pissaladière for lunch or apéro. Canned sardines are often grilled or pan-fried, then lightly dressed with a squeeze of lemon and served on bread. And jarred tuna, preserved in olive oil, is essential for making a salade Niçoise and pan bagnat.

Overhead of tinned fish
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Wine and Other Spirits

Inexpensive, yet drinkable red and white wines are de rigueur for cooking coq au vin or moules marinières, but I also like to keep a bottle of dark rum for adding flavor to crepe batter, and Cognac or Armagnac for enhancing the sauce for steak au poivre. 

Fridge

Salted Butter

Butter is a ubiquitous ingredient in French cuisine. Besides being the backbone of many baked goods like croissants, it is used generously for sautéeing vegetables, basting steaks, adding a glossy finish to omelets, and incorporating a certain je ne sais quoi to mashed potatoes. And while you can certainly use unsalted butter for most of these applications, the French overwhelmingly prefer salted butter for general use—both for cooking and spreading on bread. Made in either Normandy or Brittany, the best butter is yellow with flecks of crunchy sea salt. While this type of butter is everywhere in France, it can be difficult to find the same style here in the US, but Trader Joe’s carries a salted butter from Brittany that is worthy of a spot in your kitchen; if you can’t find it, Kerrygold from Ireland is a solid choice that is widely available.

Overhead view of French butter
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Crème Fraîche 

This creamy dairy product resembles American sour cream but with a milder tanginess. I use this for making quiche and thickening mushroom soup, but it’s also delicious when served atop fresh strawberries. Crème fraîche can be quite expensive in the US, so you can always make homemade crème fraîche with just a couple of ingredients.

Overhead view of creme fraiche
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Yogurt

The variety of yogurts in a French supermarket never ceases to amaze me—most stores have entire aisles dedicated to the product. Yogurt, typically full fat, is often eaten for breakfast or dessert, either plain, with a spoonful of preserves or chestnut cream, or sprinkled with raw sugar (called cassonade in French). Since most households have at least one individual pot of yogurt on hand at all times, it’s also possible to throw together a yogurt cake at a moment’s notice, using the yogurt container to measure out the rest of the ingredients. In the US, I opt for La Fermière or Oui by Yoplait, which are the two closest brands in terms of consistency and flavor to French versions—very creamy, thick, and with a stronger tanginess than their American counterparts.

Cheese

From kids to adults, most French people—unless they have issues with dairy—enjoy all different kinds of cheeses on a regular basis. You’ll often find at least one type of cheese in the refrigerator reserved for a post-meal cheese course, like Brie or Camembert. But for preparing meals, Emmental, Gruyère, or Comté is the variety of choice for sandwiches, making quiches, melting in gratin, or sprinkling atop salads. There’s a shredded Swiss-Gruyere blend at Trader Joe’s that I buy at least once a month and use for croque monsieur or when I’m making Mornay sauce, bechamel’s cheese-laced cousin. 

Overhead view of cheese
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Bacon

In the US and UK, bacon is more commonly eaten for breakfast, but the French typically use lardon, cubes of fatty bacon, to flavor various dishes. Added to salads, on top of tarte flambée, in quiche Lorraine, or for incorporating layers of complexity to stews, lardons are more of a condiment than a main protein in most instances.

Freezer

Frozen Puff Pastry

It’s pretty easy to throw together a shortcrust pastry for quiche or a tart with flour, butter, salt, and water. But laminated dough like puff pastry is a lot harder, so many people buy it frozen and keep it around for making tarts, pies, and appetizers like vol-au-vent. Puff pastry can be sliced into strips, twisted, brushed with egg wash, sprinkled with cheese, and baked for an easy snack, or rolled with sugar and baked to make palmier cookies. The ingredient acts as a blank canvas for culinary creativity, and the possibilities are almost endless.

Overhead view of puff pastry
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee

Frozen Vegetables

Even though France relies heavily on weekly open-air markets and their local grocery stores for produce, it isn’t surprising to find a few bags of frozen vegetables stashed away in a French person’s freezer “just in case.” Frozen vegetables are typically picked at their peak, preserving much of their nutrients and flavor during the freezing process. Inspired by the French, I've started buying frozen versions of fussier vegetables that usually need lots of prep—artichokes, fava beans, string beans, and peas—and also like to keep a bag of mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, corn, and green beans) on hand to make macedoine, one of my husband’s favorite salads from childhood.  

Overhead view of frozen arthichokes
Serious Eats / Debbie Wee