Getting to Know Tarragon is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Artemisia dracunculus
I've been using tarragon for a long time, but have never really thought much about it, other than as a delicate flavouring for roast chicken. This changed when this month's Spice Box topic came up and, with a name like Artemisia dracunculus, it's no wonder I was intrigued by this herb right about from the time I started researching it.
Flavour Profile of Tarragon
Tarragon looks a lot like your average lawn grass, with long, flat, tapered dark green leaves. The flavour of tarragon can be rather hard to describe, but the best way I can put it is a mix of anise and fennel, with sweet floral, vanilla-like undertones. Tarragon is native to Europe, the Mediterranean and most of North America. There are three varieties of this herb: French tarragon, considered the best quality; Russian tarragon, a coarser version; and wild tarragon, which is not cultivated but can be foraged for.
Part of the sunflower family, tarragon is surprisingly easy to grow. Unlike wild and Russian tarragon, French tarragon — probably your best bet for culinary use — cannot be grown from seed, as it rarely flowers or goes to seed in the first place. You can find cuttings, though, and transplant them. It can be grown both indoors in pots or outdoors as part of a herb or vegetable garden, as it's compatible with most plants. Tarragon needs well-drained moist soil and to be fertilized regularly. It doesn't like full sun and prefers shade, especially during hot summers. It's annual-like in its behaviour and doesn't reseed or spread its roots all over like, say, mint or oregano. You could bring the herb indoors in the winter and replant it outside in the summer, if you prefer. Harvest the leaves as required for your recipe.
Culinary Uses of Tarragon
Tarragon is a staple herb in French, English and European cuisine, even though it's relatively unknown in North America. As I mentioned earlier, I usually use it as a flavouring for roast chicken (usually by stuffing a bunch in the cavity before roasting), but it can be used for several other dishes, including being the primary seasoning in a French Béarnaise sauce. It pairs well with fish, poultry, eggs, fresh vegetables and other light dishes. It's not usually used for heavier dishes like stews, as its delicate flavour can be easily overwhelmed. Tarragon vinegar is also a well-known condiment. It can also be used as an infuser and flavouring in many cocktails.
Tarragon can be used fresh or dried. If using fresh, pick the leaves off the stems and finely chop or tear into dishes, as instructed by your recipe. Fresh tarragon can be stored in the fridge like any other herb. I like to wrap the leafy stems in dampened paper towels and place them in a tall glass with a little fresh water in the door of the fridge. The herb will keep well for at least a week. If you're using dried tarragon, treat it like any other dried seasoning, adding a little at a time until the desired taste is achieved.
To dry your own tarragon, strip the leaves off the stems and spread them out on a paper-towel lined tray in a cool place. Do not use an oven or any heat to dry it, as that will destroy the delicate flavours. Once dry, treat it like any other spice and place in a airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Non-Culinary Uses of Tarragon
Tarragon is a health powerhouse and is used medicinally in several cultures. It's high in minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc and iron, as well as the vitamins A and C. It's also well known as one of the best antioxidant herbs around, and tarragon oil is considered one of the best ways of neutralizing free radicals in the body. In older times, it has been used as a remedy for toothache, insomnia, anxiety and in women's health. It's still considered to be a useful supplement in the form of pills, though, as usual, please consult your doctor before using any supplements.
Finally, did you know that tarragon was used to treat and prevent scurvy in the past, with seafarers being the primary target?
Looking for more spices and herbs to jazz up your kitchen creations? Check out these Spice Box profiles:
What have you made with tarragon lately? Let us know in the comments!