What is Tarragon and How Do You Use It?

FR: Estragon

GER: Dragon, Estragon

IT: Dragoncello or Estragone

SP: Estragon, Tarragon, Tarragona

BOT: Artemisia dracunculus

FAM: Compositae

ILL: Plate 9, No. 1

Tarragon is one of the great culinary herbs, botanically related to wormwood, southernwood and mugwort. It is a bushy perennial, three feet high, with narrow leaves and small shot-like grey-green flowers. It requires well-drained soil and sun or partial shade. In winter, it should be cut down and covered with litter to protect it against frost, or it may be lifted in autumn and kept in a cold frame for a winter supply. Beds should be renewed every three or four years, as, especially if grown in the wrong soil, the flavour tends to go off.

What is Tarragon and How Do You Use It? Photo Gallery

True ‘French’ tarragon rarely, if ever, sets viable seed so it must be grown from cuttings or by root division. Good strains are often difficult to get. Seed is always from the very inferior Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides), which has paler leaves and a very different taste, more pungent and with little of the delicate and special flavour for which French tarragon is desired. Russian tarragon is commonly used in Persia as a salad plant with grilled meat.

Tarragon is particularly used in dishes of French origin, but, even in the markets of France, the supply is irregular and Russian tarragon has crept in. In Italy, it is rare except in and around Sienna.

The flavour of French tarragon is impossible to describe in terms of anything else, but most people know it from tarragon vinegar so perhaps we should start with that. Tarragon vinegar can be bought, but one can make it by stuffing a bottle with the fresh herb, gathered just before it flowers, and filling it with white wine vinegar. After two months it is ready for decanting, but it is better to leave the herb in the bottle both for its appearance and because it produces a better flavour. Tarragon vinegar has many uses, especially in salad dressings and mayonnaise. It is also important in mixed mustards.

Tarragon can be dried, but it usually then acquires hay-like overtones. It can be quick frozen or bottled by simply packing the leaves into jars, sealing and sterilizing.

Tarragon vinegar and the fresh herb are essential for sauce Bearnaise. It is, of course, also essential in all French dishes a l’estragon, e.g. poulet a l ’estragon and oeufs en gelee a l ’estragon. It is usual as part of a fines herbes mixture for omelettes, as well as being an ingredient of many sauces (verte, ravigote, messine), butters, purees with cream and cream soups. It may also be used with sole, chicken, eggs and salads. Although the flavour of tarragon is elusive, it is strong and diffuses quickly through dishes, especially hot ones. As it is used mainly in delicate dishes, it must be added with good judgement. Tarragon also flavours various liqueurs and is used in perfumery.

Another plant, Tagetes lucida, has a flavour somewhat like tarragon and is sometimes used as a substitute.

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