Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ordering a steak rare, medium-rare, medium or well-done in France

Behind the French Menu. 
Bryan Newman
All the French you need to order 
a perfectly cooked steak.

France's ever popular steak frites,
That’s steak and French fries, in the UK steak and chips.
Photograph by courtesy of Eszter
Outside of restaurants with Michelin stars, and other top-of-the-line restaurants, ordering a steak requires little French. It does not matter whether you order a steak in English, or in perfect or poorly accented French. Every French waiter understands an order for a steak.  Problems only appear when the waiter asks:  Quelle cuisson, votre steak?  How would you like your steak cooked?   Not all North American and UK steakhouse terms such as medium-rare, medium or well-done translate, conceptually, into traditional restaurant French.
From steak frites to a Chateaubriand, use the lexicon below to have your steak or slices from a roast cooked the way you like them.  The same words cover all cuts of beef.
Print out the lexicon below from Bleu to Très Bien Cuit 
and take it with you.
For a more in depth explanation, read the second part of this post.

A lexicon for ordering your steak in France
Bleu -A extraordinarily rare steak.
Saignant -A rare steak.
À Point -  Perfectly cooked; á point is used in the French kitchen for any food perfectly cooked, and for a steak it does not mean medium-rare! When an Italian chef wants perfect pasta he or she will say al dente. In France for the same perfect pasta,  the chef would say à point.  
A perfectly cooked steak in France is considered rare-to-medium-rare, with the accent on the rare.
An entrecote steak served with a mushroom sauce.
This steak is cooked á point
Photograph courtesy of Renée S. Suen
Entre à Point et Bien Cuit - Medium rare; a little closer to medium. This works well when I wish to order a medium-rare steak in France.
Bien Cuit - A medium to well-done steak.
Très Bien Cuit – An exceptionally well-done steak; however très bien cuit is not in any French chef’s  dictionary, though it will be understood. However,  do not order France's popular steak frites very well-done, that will bring you fried or grilled leather. Read the paragraph lower down with more on steaks très bien cuit.
Photograph by MonkeyBusiness/
Consider your choices.
The paragraphs below, explain in more detail, the French used to order a steak cooked as you wish.   
However, the lexicon shown above is all you will need when traveling in France.
Bleu – French for the color blue, and also the name used to order a seriously rare steak.  When you feel the need for an almost raw steak, then a steak bleu will fill that need. A steak bleu indicates that the chef will have allowed the steak to take a quick peek at the grill or frying pan, in passing, on its way to your plate. A steak bleu, is just sealed on the outside; when cut that steak will leak copiously onto your plate; it will have been cooked, maybe, for one to two minutes on each side.
 Saignant –French for a rare steak.  The direct translation into English of the word saignant would be bloody, or bleeding; despite that, a steak saignant will have been cooked a little more than a steak bleu. A steak saignant will also leak, when you cut into it, though a little less copiously, than a steak bleu.   In North America and the UK, a steak saignant will still be considered an extremely rare steak.

A steak with pepper sauce.
Photograph courtesy of Magnus Hultberg.
À point  -  Perfectly cooked, just ready or just right.  À point is the term used, in France, for all perfectly cooked foods, and not for steaks alone. Unfortunately, many guidebooks give the term à point as the way to order a medium-rare steak. A perfectly cooked steak, for most French men and women, is not medium-rare  rather it is a rare-to-medium-rare steak, closer to rare than medium.
I prefer my steaks cooked à point, but that is my choice. French servers with experience with English-speaking tourists, will agree, generally with a smile, to take your à point steak back into the kitchen for a few more minutes on the grill, or in the frying pan, when you consider à  point too rare for your tastes.
A sliced steak cooked to à point
Photograph courtesy of  rondostar
When English speaking diners, in France, wish to order their steaks medium-rare, I suggest  they order steaks cooked entre à point et bien cuit; that translates as “between well cooked and à point”  the result will be a US or UK medium-rare steak, closer to medium than rare.  For a medium-rare steak just ask for your steak entre à point et bien cuit.
Entre à Point et Bien Cuit  –   Ordering  medium rare steaks, in France, entre à point et bien cuit has worked well for me and all French servers will understand it.  A French diner sitting near you, and observing you order a steak cooked entre à point et bien cuit may consider your steak as overcooked; however, you are paying the piper.
Moyen –  Average or the middle; in the French kitchen the word moyen  has nothing to do with steaks.  I have seen the word moyen in some guidebooks given as the French for a medium cooked steak; it is not. It may be French-Canadian, but it is not French French.  In the kitchen, a chef may require a feu moyen, a medium flame, but I have never heard moyen used by any French chef for any type of steak. Despite that caveat, French waiters, in areas frequented by tourists, will generally understand when an English speaker requests a steak moyen; you will not have been the first.  Moyen is the French for average  and middle and so in certain cases it can mean medium; moyen  is also used in expressions like the Moyen Âge, the middle ages, and Moyen-Orient, the Middle East. In France that US or UK medium cooked steak  is closer to a French steak ordered bien cuit,
Bien Cuit   –Bien cuit translates into English as well done; however, an order for a steak bien cuit, in France, generally produces a medium-to-well-done steak.  A steak bien cuit will not run at all; however, its center will still be slightly rosé, pink.
Très Bien Cuit – Very well cooked; an extremely well-done steak.  Unfortunately, très bien cuit is not  used for steaks in French kitchens; I made it up.  Despite that all servers with some experience with overseas visitors will understand the request. For the French très bien cuit means an overcooked steak, and the server may ask you to repeat that instruction. If you have ordered steak frites, an experienced server may advise you re-consider, or order something else.  The cuts used for France’s relatively inexpensive steak frites are usually flank steaks, and a well-done flank steak will be tough and tasteless, practically inedible. For an enjoyable meal with a well-done steak, I suggest that you look through the menu again.  Consider ordering a more expensive entrecôte, or change your  request for your steak très bien cuit  to just bien cuit.

The French view of a steak cooked très bien cuit
Photograph courtesy of  freefotouk.
An entrecôte is a US rib-eye steak;  in the UK, the same cut can come from the rib-eye or the UK sirloin. N.B. The US sirloin is a completely different cut.  An entrecote is quite an upgrade from a hanger steak, so check the price. If you do like your steaks very well-done, then an entrecote may lose some of its taste, but will still be edible when well-done.  
When ordering your steak remember the French also make great French fries.
Photo by Courtesy of
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