Food & Nutrition

This Is the Surprising Dish That Sparked Julia Child’s Career

For one of her first meals in Paris, Julia Child ate sole meuniere, a simple-seeming white fish cooked in butter and lemon. In her memoir, My Life in France, she called it “the most exciting meal of my life.” The soon-to-be-famous chef was already in her 40s when she tasted this fish, and it may have launched her glorious career. Here are 11 other facts you might not know about Julia Child.

When we heard this, we just had to taste the fish that changed the course of home cooking!

How to make Julia Child’s Sole Meuniere

What you’ll need

  • Skinless and boneless sole fillets, or another thin white fish fillet (I bought three for two hungry people)
  • 1/4 cup flour on a plate
  • 3 tablespoons clarified butter
  • 4 tablespoons plain butter
  • Parsley, minced
  • One lemon, quartered
  • Salt and pepper

Note: I followed the recipe in The Way to Cook, which provides detailed step-by-step instructions plus troubleshooting tips. There is an abbreviated, more conversational version in Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which you may prefer if you like your recipes relaxed and adaptable.

Initial thoughts

At a glance, I expected this recipe to resemble all the other lemon-spritzed fish dishes I’ve eaten before. Tasty enough, but definitely with a whiff of low-calorie cooking about them. Then I remembered that, as in many classic French recipes, the trick is to showcase simple, quality ingredients with meticulous cooking technique. Shorten your cooking time with these 25 brilliant cooking techniques and hacks.

With a gulp, I hoped my technique would live up to Julia’s direction.

Sole MeuniereKelsey Mueller for Taste of Home

The first steps

I called around town until I found a grocery store that sold sole fillets. I struck out on Dover sole but found a respectable Pacific sole. At home, I left the fish out on the counter and readied my other ingredients. The fish cooks in a flash—the cooking time is less than four minutes—and I knew once I started, I wouldn’t have any time to pause. I sprinkled flour over a large plate, sliced my lemon, and chopped my parsley. (Confession: I rarely prep all my ingredients in advance, preferring to rush around like a maniac while I cook. Just having everything set out on the counter made me feel like a pro.)

To clarify butter, I dumped a few tablespoons into a glass dish and microwaved until the butter had melted and a thin layer of white froth floated on top. I skimmed off the froth with a spoon—these are the milk solids, which burn easily. Without them, the butter can withstand cooking at high heat. In other words, don’t skip this step! Here’s the recipe in full detail.

Heat the pan and prep the fish

I set my heaviest cast-iron pan over medium-high heat—Julia’s recipe specifies that you want the fish to brown, which means you need high initial heat. While it warmed up, I dredged the fillets in the flour and gave them a quick sprinkle of salt and pepper. (I kept glancing back at the book: Is that it? Yes, that’s really all you need.)

When I flicked water at the pan, the drops sizzled over the iron. Ready to cook! I poured in a few spoonfuls of clarified butter, which immediately began to hiss and sizzle. Quickly, I added the fish, placing each fillet so it wasn’t crowded in the pan. You want the fish to fry, not steam. After you’re done cooking, use this technique to get rid of that fishy smell in your kitchen.

Sole MeuniereKelsey Mueller for Taste of Home

Cook ’til just done

The first side of the fish cooks for two minutes. The whole time, the butter wildly, cheerfully popped and danced, or, as Julia would say, “sputtered.” The browning butter smelled amazingly nutty and delicious. When the timer rang, I carefully eased a spatula under each fillet and gave it a cautious flip. So far, so good! The fillets had achieved a lovely golden brown crust.

I let the fish cook for another two minutes on the other side. Julia specifies that the fish should be just cooked: If it flakes, it’s overcooked. (Told you the technique was exacting!)

Here’s where I confess a misstep: When I tried to remove the fillets from the pan, they were stuck, and in my well-intentioned-but-probably-rough spatula-poking, two of the fragile fillets broke apart. Even with their beautiful brown crust, they looked a bit sad on the plate. What would Julia do? Cry? Never. I straightened my shoulders and tightened my apron. “Never apologize!” Julia would say. I showered the fish with parsley, hiding the worst of the damage.

Next up, adding another gob of butter to the pan to create a sauce. To help remove the stuck fish bits, I added the juice of half my lemon. By the time the butter melted, the sauce was done. As I poured it over the fish, the parsley sizzled up in the heat, and everything smelled so amazing I no longer cared about the broken fillets. These are the 8 best cooking lessons we learned from Julia Child.

The verdict

As soon as I tasted the sole meuniere, I was sorry I’d ever doubted Julia. Outside, the fish was slightly crisp from browning; inside, it was meltingly tender. The sauce was so rich and decadent, like butter’s highest calling. And the lemon’s acidity balanced all the flavors and kept the rich dish from feeling heavy.

I was so fixated on the fish I forgot to make a side—whoops! Luckily I’d made three fillets for me and my husband. We polished them off. Best of all, the meal only took about half an hour to prepare. With practice, this recipe will become a muscle-memory meal for me: one of those dishes you could make in your sleep, but which never fail to impress. Brava, Julia! Next time, make one of these 35 easy side recipes that everyone should know how to make before turning 35.

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