Cooking with Tarragon

Cooking How-To, Featured Article, How-To, Ingredient
on July 12, 2011

American culinary godfather James Beard once quipped, “I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.”

Presumably, he never had to test his theory. But the sentiment says a mouthful about the praise this herb has garnered.

Tarragon’s name comes from the French word estragon, or “little dragon,” probably a reference to its coiling, serpentine roots—tarragon will literally strangle itself if not properly divided. For ancient people, a plant’s appearance suggested its medicinal use; hence tarragon became an antidote for snakebite. Chewing on a tarragon leaf can numb the mouth, so it also became a go-to remedy for toothache.

Tarragon is probably best loved by the French: It’s essential in the traditional seasoning blend fines herbes and gives béarnaise sauce its characteristic flavor. Tarragon’s anise-like taste complements fish, poultry, beef and a variety of vegetables, notably peas. It’s classic in vinaigrettes and herb butters. Mix it with mayo for a quick sauce for fish. But use it judiciously—tarragon’s assertive taste can overwhelm culinary wallflowers.

This herb is a faithful perennial in the southern United States, provided it’s divided every couple of years to avoid that nasty habit of self-inflicted strangulation. Tarragon vinegar is a great way to preserve its flavor. Freezing it is also a handy option. Remove leaves from stem and freeze leaves individually on a cookie sheet. When frozen, transfer to an airtight container.
—By Jo Marshall