03 April 2011

Terrines, pâtés, and rillettes

One of the products on sale at the Charcuterie Chiquet in Meusnes — one that caught our eye — was a terrine de bœuf cuit — a kind of pâté made with beef. Actually, this isn't really a pâté, because it's made with lean meat. I guess it could be called a "jellied" beef dish, or beef in aspic.

Terrine in French is the name of the dish that pâtés and other preparations are cooked in. It's called a terrine because it's a baking dish that was originally made out of terre cuite or, in Italian (and English), terra cotta. A terrine is an earthenware dish, and it's often rectangular, or oval-shaped.

A slice of Bernard Chiquet's terrine de bœuf cuit — potted beef

By extension, the foods cooked in such dishes are themselves called terrines. You can make terrines with meat, poultry, liver, fish, or vegetables. Sometimes they will have eggs or gelatin in them, to bind together the other ingredients. Here's a vegetable terrine that Walt made and posted about some time back.

So what we call pâté can be made in a terrine or not. Pâté is by definition a mixture of chopped or pureed meat, fish, or liver, with spices and other flavoring ingredients — herbs, wine, onions, garlic, and so on.

The origin of the term pâté has to do with the fact that the meat mixture was traditionally cooked in a pastry crust, or "paste." Today, pâtés can be made that way, or as terrines, without a crust. The word pâté now has both meanings. Sometimes you see preparations called terrines de pâté. And sometimes you see terrines de [whatever] en croûte — in a crust — which brings the whole thing full circle.

One thing you always eat with terrines, pâtés, and rillettesare these little picked gherkins called cornichons.
They are sour and vinegary, not sweet.

A similar but different way of preparing meats in France is called rillettes. Rillettes are not pâtés — the method is preparing them is completely different. The meat for pâtés and terrines is chopped, ground, or pureed and then mixed with flavoring ingredients before it is cooked.

Rillettes, on the other hand, are lean meats — pork, rabbit, duck, goose, or even turkey or chicken — cooked with or in lard or poultry fat and then shredded and potted up. Sometimes people say they don't really want to know what went into the making of a pâté (or a sausage). With rillettes, you don't even have to ask the question: rillettes are lean meat all shredded up, and bound together with some fat.

In a way, the terrine de bœuf cuit is actually a kind of beef rillettes, judging from its texture. It looks like corned beef that has been set up with aspic (gelatin) and packed into a terrine.

In France, what we call tuna salad is now called rillettes de thon — tuna rillettes. The fat that binds together the shreds of cooked fish is mayonnaise — an emulsion of egg yolk and vegetable oil. Or it can be fromage frais or fromage blanc in France.

Rillettes de lapin, with shreds and chunks of cooked lean rabbit meat

I saw a chef on a French cooking show make rillettes de lapin the other day. All he did was "marinate" rabbit pieces in garlic, coarse salt, and black pepper overnight. Then he rinsed off the pieces, dried them, and cooked them at very low temperature for several hours in enough melted goose or duck fat to cover them well.

When the rabbit was completely cooked, he let the pieces cool enough so that he could handle them and he used his fingers to take all the meat off the bones. He put that meat in a bowl, added just enough melted goose fat to bind the meat together, and stirred it all up. He added some fresh herbs to the mixture and then put it in the refrigerator to cool. Voilà : rillettes de lapin. Serve them cold or cool, spread on toast. Or eat some alongside a nice green salad.

Here is a recipe for Rillettes de Touraine, made with lean and fat pork cooked in Vouvray wine. And here is a recipe and descriptions of Rillettes de lapin that I made a couple of years ago. I cooked the rabbit in white wine, not duck or goose fat.

A boudin noir, or "black pudding," served with
potatoes au gratin from Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne

Another interesting linguistic subject has to do with the French word boudin and the English word pudding...


  1. My very favorite item in this set of photos was of the potatoes gratin... yummmmm-oh!

    cornichons: same word for sweet or sour version?


  2. Judy,
    As far as I know there is no such thing as a sweet cornichon. Oh la, la. Fortunately, they're always sour.

    If they were sweet they'd have to have another name so people could stay away from them.

  3. I never understood fully what rillettes meant before; good explanation, thanks.

    I thought I was the only person that liked cornichons. My family usually passes them to me as decorative leftovers.

  4. No, cornichons are never sweet — not even slightly. Though I have found recently that there are pickles that resemble our American dill pickles, which I like. They are called malossols and they are flavored with dill (aneth) and fennel (fenouil). They are not as vinegary as French cornichons but they are not nearly as sweet as American sweet pickles.

    The only pickles that really go with terrines, pâtés, and rillettes are the French cornichons.

  5. Hi Judy, if you are looking for a translation for "sweet pickles" maybe cornichons aigres-doux would be it. That's what it says on the jar of Polish/Russian pickles I have in the fridge.

    Robb has good taste, Starman.

  6. Stop already! As we discussed, I have been gorging on French bread and cheese since I returned to Calif from my holiday in CR. And now I am craving pate and cornichons. And maybe some rabbit.
    And frog legs.

  7. Wow, how fabulous, thanks so much for the recipes! I am on holiday in the country with time for cooking...so I will try to do the recipes justice!


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