For a long time I was repulsed by licorice-flavored things (see: fennel, anise, tarragon). I was probably in my early thirties before I could fully appreciate the distinct flavor. And while I still can't happily munch on black-licorice flavored anything (especially jelly beans - bletch!), those members of the veggie and spice families with anise-like flavors are now some of my very favorites to cook with and eat. (I like to think of them as sophisticated and my anise-flavor-loving-palate as "mature.") Licorice-y tarragon makes its appearance in the garden in the late spring (along with another of my favorites, chives), one of the signs, in my mind, that summer, and all of its culinary delights, is right around the corner.
A Brief History
Tarragon is native to Central Asia and Europe, including Siberia and Southern Russia. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, it was unknown in most of Europe in classical times, although I found other sources that noted the Ancient Greeks used the herb to treat toothache. It began to take hold in French and Italian cuisine in the late medieval period. In modern times, the herb is much more popular in French cuisine (far less so in Italian cooking), where it is an important ingredient in several classical French sauces and dishes. August Escoffier, famous for codifying classical French cuisine in his book, Guide Culinaire, mentions the herb no fewer than sixty times in it.
- Tarragon is in the same genus as the infamous wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Wormwood contains thujone, a compound that can excite the central nervous system. It was once thought to be the psychoactive ingredient in absinthe, although that theory is now up for debate.
- Tarragon's extensive "serpentine" root system made medieval healers think that it was an effective cure for snakebite. (It's not, in case you were wondering.)
- Speaking of snakes: tarragon's scientific name, Artemisia dracunculus, refers to dragons or serpents (draco in Latin); the English word may come from the Arabic tarkhon or the Greek drakon ("dragon"). The French word for the herb, estragon, sounds way more like "dragon" (but sexier, because its French).
- Estragon ("tarragon") is one of the main characters in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
- Tarragon is the main flavoring agent in the Central Asian and Russian soft drink tarhun, which is usually colored bright green.
There are two types of tarragon - Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) and French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa), both in the Asteraceae (daisy) family. Russian tarragon can be cultivated from seed and is less finicky in the garden, but it has a far inferior flavor and can be downright bland compared to the French variety. Its leaves are also quite a bit courser in texture. French tarragon has a pungent, liquorice-like taste due to the presence of estragole, an organic compound that gives fennel, anise and tarragon their distinct flavors. French tarragon is generally cultivated from cuttings or through division. It is usually sterile, meaning it rarely flowers or sets seeds, and can be difficult to grow. (It hates super hot weather, too-moist soil, super cold weather, you name it; it's very high maintenance.) Other members of the Artemisia genus include mugwort, sagebrush (not to be confused with culinary sage) and wormwood.
Tarragon thrives in the late spring to early summer - by the heat of mid-summer in most places in the US, the herb has usually bolted.
Tarragon is not grown on a scale large enough to have much of an environmental impact. However, if you're concerned about growing practices and/or pesticide use, check with your local tarragon grower about his/her growing practices. Better yet - if you can, grow your own. Tarragon does well on a sunny windowsill with regular watering. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)
Characteristics and What to Look For
Tarragon is used for its leaves, which are long and slender with pointed tips. Look for stems of tarragon with bright green, perky leaves. Wilted, yellowing or black leaves or stems are a no-go. It is very difficult to differentiate Russian and French tarragon by sight - they look exactly the same. When in doubt (if the tarragon you are buying is not labeled), crush a leaf between your fingers. Russian tarragon smells like sweet grass, with little-to-no liquorice/anise smell. French tarragon will smell distinctly like anise.
You probably will never eat enough tarragon in one sitting to have much of a nutritional impact, but the herb does have decent amounts of calcium, Vitamin B6, potassium, iron and magnesium.
What to Do with It
Tarragon can be used fresh or dried, and is usually added to cooked sauces at the last minute. In classical French cuisine, tarragon is an important ingredient in several secondary sauces - mostly famously in Sauce Béarnaise. (In French cuisine-speak, secondary sauces are derivatives of any of the five classic "Mother Sauces:" hollandaise, béchamel, sauce tomat, sauce veloute, and sauce Espagnole.) It is also one of the herbs in the classic French fines herbes, a seasoning mix of several herbs, including tarragon. The herb has a very distinct flavor that can quickly overwhelm a dish if not used in moderation - especially for those not into its anise/liquorice flavor. It is very commonly paired with fish and shellfish, poultry, eggs and fresh vegetables.
In addition to its use in French cuisine, tarragon is commonly used in Eastern European and Russian cuisine. Here's a recipe for Hungarian chicken soup with tarragon, and for Slovenian tarragon potica, a kind of sweet bread (here's a detailed history of the bread, in case you're interested). In Persian cuisine, tarragon makes up one of the common herbs in sabzi khordan - a fresh herb and vegetable platter that accompanies meals.
Some other delicious uses for tarragon: try making tarragon butter to drizzle on shellfish (especially scallops and lobster). Finely chop tarragon leaves and tuck into your next omelet - perhaps with a little goat cheese? Sub tarragon for basil in a tomato and mozzarella salad. Make tarragon mayo by mixing chopped tarragon with prepared (or homemade) mayo and slather on a BLT (what I had for lunch today). Try making a tarragon vinaigrette with the DIY tarragon vinegar recipe below, plus olive oil, salt and pepper and drizzling over cooked beets, asparagus, green beans, lentils, potatoes or peas.
I usually store tarragon stems right on my counter, in a small vase of water. They will keep for a week or longer this way. You can also roll tarragon stems in a damp paper towel and place in a zip-top bag in your refrigerator's crisper drawer; the herb will keep for 3-4 days this way.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Tarragon is great dried - check out this super interesting tutorial on how to flash-dry fresh herbs in the microwave, or just hang a bunch of tarragon upside-down in a dry spot for several weeks until dry, then place in an air-tight container. You can also make tarragon jelly, or check out the DIY tarragon vinegar recipe, below.
DIY Tarragon Vinegar
Tarragon vinegar is commonly made with white wine or champagne vinegar, but feel free to try sherry vinegar or apple cider vinegar as well (steer clear of regular white vinegar - it's just too pungent and overwhelms the delicate tarragon flavor). Use a ratio of about 1 part tarragon to 1 part vinegar (e.g., in the recipe below, I use one cup of tarragon leaves to one cup of vinegar). Make sure you use French tarragon, otherwise your DIY tarragon vinegar won't taste like much! Another nice touch: stick a stem of tarragon in your finished vinegar (after the straining step, below) for decoration and to help you remember what kind of vinegar you made! Here's a good recipe for a basic vinaigrette - just sub the vinegar in the recipe with your tarragon vinegar and start drizzling over some veggies!
1 cup tarragon leaves, washed and dried well
1 cup white wine, champagne or other light vinegar (see above)
- Bruise the tarragon leaves just slightly with the back of a knife - you don't want to cut into the leaves, just bruise them slightly to release their delightful flavor.
- Add the tarragon leaves to a small glass jar or container (I just used a small Mason jar). Pour over the vinegar and cover. Let sit in a cool, dry place for at least a week, and ideally 2-3 weeks, to let the tarragon flavor develop. You can give the jar or container a shake every once in a while to help the process along.
- Strain the tarragon leaves from the vinegar. I just poured the vinegar back into the jar I made it in, but you can decant it into a fancier bottle or container. Glass is best. If you like, add a sprig of tarragon to the final mixture.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)