For this series, we wanted to try and simplify something as complex and wide-reaching as a national cuisine; to break it down in an effort to better understand the key flavors and components that truly make a particular country’s food. We decided to tackle that challenge by taking a peek at the pantry—since the first step to building any dish starts there, with ingredients that are always well-stocked and on-hand.

What are the things that define French cuisine? The answer isn’t an easy one and it’s likely to vary widely depending on who you ask. From Michelin star chefs to Julia Child, beef Bourguignon to bouillabaisse, French cuisine is rooted in tradition but characterized by the diversity of its regions and a general reverence for quality ingredients.

But if you look closely at the beginnings of just about every French dish, you’ll see some patterns, and whether it’s a base of butter or a finishing flourish of fleur de sel, the key ingredients for a well-stocked French pantry are ones you’re probably familiar with—they might even already be staples in your repertoire!

1. European-style butter

Not all butters are created equal, and no French pantry would settle for butter with anything less than 82% fat. It should also be cultured for a tangier, more savory taste that sets it apart from other butters. Rich French butters are often salted (but not always) and might be a bit spendier than your average stick or block, but they’re worth the splurge.

2. Mirepoix

The aromatic base of many a French stock, soup, and stew, mirepoix is a mix of diced carrots, celery, and onion. They are sweated out in a pan over medium to low heat with plenty of butter or olive oil. The key is not to get them brown or caramelized, but simply to urge the vegetables to release their natural sweetness.

3. Dijon mustard

Available both in a smooth or whole grain form, Dijon mustard is a key ingredient for a classically peppy French vinaigrette. It can also add depth and tang to tons of sauces, be used as a rub on a big piece of meat before it’s roasted, or even be mixed with mayonnaise for sandwiches—when it can then be referred to as Dijonnaise, your new favorite word.

4. Red and white wine vinegars

French wines are some of the finest in the world, and great winemaking regions also happen to produce—not surprisingly—great wine vinegars. Opt for really nice red and white wine vinegars and use them to make salad dressings or cut the richness of a braise. For more on vinegars, check out our complete guide to vinegars.

5. Fleur de sel

French for “flower of salt,” fleur de sel is a finishing salt known for adding a light crunch and elevating the flavors of the dish or ingredient it’s sprinkled on. Since the real stuff is quite expensive thanks to the laborious process by which it’s harvested, don’t use it for your everyday cooking—keep it as a special ingredient to finish off your dishes. Try a sprinkle on a chocolate mousse for instance.

6. Thyme

Both fresh and dry thyme are used often in French cooking, either alone or in combination with parsley and bay leaf (known as bouquet garni), tarragon, basil, rosemary, sage, and chervil, along with dried Provençal lavender and herbes de Provence.

7. Wine

For both cooking and drinking, it’s never a real French kitchen without some wine. Dry whites and dry reds can swing to your glass or the pot, but the rule of thumb for which ones to have around? The ones you like to drink!

8. Crème fraîche

A quality French crème fraîche will be silky smooth with a slight tang and leave a soft, buttery flavor on your palate. Use it in lieu of heavy cream for savory pan sauces or serve it alongside a rich dessert to help cut the sweetness.

9. Comté cheese

Where would we be without French cheeses? The best of the best and easiest for everyday use is Comté—a semi-hard, subtly funky, nutty cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in Eastern France. It’s creamy pale color goes and capacity for extreme meltability makes it my number one for casseroles and gratins—French or otherwise.

10. High-quality chocolate

France might not be the first country you think of when you think of chocolate, but it’s a well-known fact that the French have a sweet spot for it From luxurious pralines lining shelves in Parisian chocolateries to the beloved pain au chocolat, many French kitchens have a stock of chocolate for nibbling or baking. Valrhona is one of the premium French brands known around the world for high quality chocolates for all purposes.

Which of the above ingredients would we find already stocked in your pantry? Have more questions about the French pantry? Let us know in the comments below.

More delicious ideas for you