Ever since I wrote this web site’s article on seasoning, I’ve had the feeling that I should write a parallel article on flavoring. Why? Because in many, if not most, recipes in French, cooking instructions are given to add both salt and pepper. So doesn’t pepper, a flavoring, seem as important as salt, the seasoning? If we have to live without one of the two, pepper would go—so it’s not really on an equal footing with salt. But it, and all the other flavorings in French cuisine, should not be overlooked.
Although the list of flavorings used in French cooking is not endless, it is quite large. To make the list easier to digest, I will group the individual flavorings into categories such as herbs, spices, oils, acids, alcohols, and sweeteners.
Looking back to the earliest recipes considered to be French, recipes from the late 14th century, we see that most flavoring was done with spices. Spices were the purview of the rich. They were mainly imported from the Middle East at great expense and once obtained, kept under strict control, often by the nobleman’s pharmacist rather than his cook, and often under lock and key. Besides spices, other common flavorings included honey and its expensive, imported cousin: sugar. Grape products such as wine, vinegar, verjus, and must were also common in 14th-century cooking. Herbs, like parsley, were more often used to color food green rather than to give it flavor.
As France came out of the Middle Ages and transitioned into the Renaissance, herbs supplanted spices for use as food flavorings. Herbs were produced locally, often in the kitchen gardens of the wealthy, and eventually those of the middle classes. Common spices like pepper, nutmeg, and cloves still had a place, albeit a less prominent one, but spices like saffron became almost non-existent in the French cooking of the period. Others like cinnamon transitioned from a presence in savory dishes to being used almost exclusively in sweet dishes. During the same period, herbs like thyme became nearly ubiquitous.
Even today, now that most spices are inexpensive and readily available, their use in French cooking is not at the same level as it was six hundred years ago. Now, spices are just one of the many types of flavorings that can be found in French recipes. And many of the spices, such as cumin, and spice mixtures, such as curry, although used for more than a century in French cooking, are often used in recipes adopted and adapted from foreign lands. Other spices, such as the so-called Szechwan peppercorn, have returned to France with chefs who have worked abroad and who have introduced these spices into a new French culinary tradition.
The following outline lists most of the common, and a few of the uncommon, flavorings used in French cooking. The list is not complete; there are always new flavorings arriving on the scene as chefs expand their style of cooking. Also some items are hard to categorize; you may think that these items should have been placed in a different category or not included at all. For example, sometimes garlic is used as a flavoring and other times its used as a garnish, but for this list, we are only interested in its application as a flavoring. (Click a list subject to expand, or collapse, the list below it.)
In order to successfully prepare French food is it necessary have all these flavorings on hand? No. I’ve adopted the following strategy: flavorings are purchased when needed. Many of the flavorings I use, including vinegars and dried spices, are products that can last for an extended period of time on the shelf. I first purchased them when I had a recipe calling for their use. But those flavorings that I use often, such as red-wine vinegar, not only have a place on the kitchen shelf, but I also keep a back-up bottle in storage so I am never without them. I buy fresh herbs as needed, although I always seem to have fresh thyme on hand for inclusion in the unscheduled omelet or sauce.
You probably already have a few shelves in your kitchen set aside for flavorings. You may even have a few items that are missing from the outline above.
The author gratefully thanks Ken Broadhurst of Mareuil-sur-Cher, France, for his superb editing assistance with this article.
JL Flandrin, Dietary Choices and Culinary Technique 1500-1800, in JL Flandrin & M Montanari (eds), A Culinary History of Food: a Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2000, pg 403-17.
DE Scully & T Scully, Early French Cooking: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002, pg 19-34.
TS Peterson, Acquired Taste: The French Origins of Modern Cooking. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, pg 193-202.