Known as ‘the king of herbs’ in France, tarragon has a delicate but complex flavour, with predominant notes of aniseed balanced by hints of vanilla, mint, pepper, and eucalyptus. It is a key ingredient in Béarnaise sauce, a classic French sauce that is traditionally served with steak, and, along with parsley, chives and chervil, is one of the four herbs in popular herb mix fines herbes. It pairs well with delicate flavours like fish, chicken and eggs, both by itself or as part of the fines herbes mix.
Although it is most commonly associated with French food, tarragon is thought to originate from Siberia, where it was first cultivated thousands of years ago. It now grows in sunnier climates throughout the northern hemisphere, and is a popular ingredient in dishes around the world. It is one of the main ingredients in sabzi knordan, a Persian vegetable dish, and in Eastern Europe it is made into a bright green fizzy drink called tarkhuna.
Tarragon has been prized as a natural medicine for at least a thousand years, when Roman soldiers would stuff their sandals with it to try and increase their vitality. We can’t promise that putting it in your shoes will do anything, but modern science does suggest that tarragon may have some useful health benefits.
Some studies show that eating tarragon may help to protect against diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity. This means that your cells are more responsive to insulin, allowing it to perform its function of moving glucose from the blood and into the cells and thus preventing potential spikes in blood sugar.
It may protect against food-borne illness
Research suggests that tarragon may have an antibacterial effect, with one study finding that it was able to inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli, both of which are responsible for food borne illnesses. If these results can be replicated, this could make tarragon a possible alternative to synthetic preservatives used in food.
There are three different plants that are commonly known as tarragon, although technically only two of them are ‘true’ tarragon. They all have that distinctive liquorice flavour, and can all be used in cooking in the same way, but there are some notable differences.
French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
French tarragon is what most people would think of as tarragon. It has a stronger flavour than its Russian cousin, and has smoother, glossier, darker leaves. It is the most difficult type of tarragon to grow, however, as it is a sterile variety, which means that any new plants need to be grown from cuttings.
Russian tarragon is easier to grow and therefore cheaper than the French variety, but it has a far milder taste, which makes it less useful for culinary purposes.
Mexican Marigold Mint (Tagetes lucida)
Although technically not a true tarragon, Mexican ‘tarragon’ is a relative of the other two plants, and has a strong aniseed flavour. In fact, many people think that French and Mexican tarragon are closer in flavour than the French and Russian varieties.
Fresh vs. dry tarragon
As with many herbs, the drying process can significantly alter the properties of tarragon, with the dried herb having a stronger but less complex flavour. Tarragon is particularly prized for its complexity, so to get the full benefit of those subtle nuances of flavour try to use it fresh where you can. Dried tarragon is best reserved for dishes with longer cooking times, like braised meat.
You can substitute one for the other, but bear in mind that the flavour won’t be quite the same, and also that you will need less dried tarragon for the same strength of flavour. As a general rule, you should substitute one teaspoon of dried tarragon for every one tablespoon of fresh.
How to prep
Tarragon stems are quite tough and woody, so generally only the leaves are eaten. To remove them, hold the stem at one end and run your other hand along the length, gently stripping the leaves as you go. They should then be chopped, taking care not to bruise the delicate leaves. For most recipes, fresh tarragon should be added after cooking, or at least towards the end, as too much cooking can make it turn bitter.
How to store it
There are several ways to store fresh tarragon, depending on how long you want to keep it. If you’re planning on using it in the next few days, you can put it in a jar of water like cut flowers, or to keep it fresh for up to two weeks, wash it, wrap in a damp paper towel and place it in an airtight container in the fridge. It can also be frozen for up to five months.
For dried tarragon, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, away from moisture and pests. Stored in this way, it should keep for up to 1one year.
Substitutes for tarragon
If you’re all out of tarragon, there are a few substitutes you can use in a pinch, although, of course, the results will not be exactly the same. For a similar aniseed/ liquorice flavour, you can try chervil, fennel fronds, anise or fennel seed. If you have some dried fines herbes, this does actually contain tarragon, but remember that dried herbs have a stronger flavour and adjust the quantities accordingly.
Recipe ideas with tarragon
If you want to try ‘the king of herbs’ for yourself, why not try one of these simple and delicious tarragon recipes?