These flavors help define classic dishes like boeuf Bourguignon and béchamel sauce.
beef Bourguignon
Credit: Bryan Gardner

What defines French cuisine?  It is at once rustic and sophisticated, ingredient- and technique-focused. One thing that underscores French cooking, though, is the rich blend of flavors that cooks coax out of whatever they're preparing. And one key to pulling off this feat? Using the right herbs and spices. Here we outline the flavors that often define French cooking.

Bay Leaves

Like cooks the world over, the French use these dried leaves from the laurel tree to season meat and fish dishes, as well as sauces, soups, and stews. Their flavor doesn't jump out at your instantly, but it adds another layer to slow-cooked dishes like duck confit.


The delicate, piney taste of marjoram complements many French beef, lamb, and veal dishes. It's also a component of herbes de provence, the traditional Provençal mixture that also includes rosemary, thyme, oregano and lavender.


This warm spice adds a touch of nuttiness and fragrance to creamy sauces such as béchamel. French bakers also incorporate it into desserts, like pain d'épices, a spice cake.


Although the French often use chopped fresh parsley as a garnish, it's also common in persillade (a mixture of parsley and garlic, frequently added to roasted potatoes). And you'll find it in bouquet garni, a bundle of fresh herbs tied together and placed in soups, stews, braises, and sauces to infuse an herbal flavor into dishes.


The bright red threads of saffron appear in the Mediterranean seafood dishes of southern France, such as Bouillabaisse.


Bittersweet, with a taste like licorice, tarragon is a natural for chicken, fish, and egg dishes. In France, cooks also use it to flavor vinegar and mustard. Tarragon is also a key ingredient in Bearnaise, the smooth, rich sauce that often accompanies steak.


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