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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: All this month we'll be stocking up on fresh herbs to get our spring fix. Next up, tarragon.
Label something as “King” (see especially: beers and burgers) and you're setting yourself up for disappointment—they rarely live up to their regal name. Luckily, when the French do something, it tends to be more promising. Tarragon is known as “the King of Herbs” in France, and in this case it’s a well-earned title. Tarragon is a mainstay in French cooking and an essential ingredient in both Béarnaise sauce and the combination of herbs known as fines herbes.
But its royal status hasn't carried over stateside—not yet anyway. When we add fresh herbs to a dish, we’re far more likely to reach for basil, chives, or even the polarizing cilantro, only procuring tarragon when a recipe calls for it. It's time for that to change. This spring, vow to start using this versatile anise-scented herb more often.
If you're a licorice-hater, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to hate tarragon, too—give it a shot. It doesn't have a harsh flavor; Kristen describes it “like licorice chilled out and went to the countryside.” Our beloved thirschfeld adds: “The smell is a magical anise elixir, packed with the promise of the other herbs that will follow close behind: lovage, savory, chervil, and chives.”
More: If you can't get enough of tarragon's anise flavor, salty licorice might be the candy for you.
You’re most likely to find French tarragon at the grocery store—which is good because it's the one you want. If you end up with tarragon with a tamer flavor, you might have found Russian tarragon, which Jack Staub refers to as the "far-heartier-of-habit but infinitely less tasty surrogate.” If you’re wondering why anyone would bother with a less-tasty tarragon, the "far-heartier-of-habit" bit means it actually likes poor soil conditions and puts up with neglect and dry spells. So not only can Russian tarragon thrive in adverse conditions, but it can also be grown from seed—French tarragon rarely produces viable seeds, so new plants have to be propagated by root division or stem cuttings.
A final type, Spanish tarragon, isn’t in the same genus as the first two, but it’s still a better substitute for French tarragon than Russian tarragon is (sorry Russian tarragon). It has wider leaves and is a little milder and sweeter in flavor.
Store tarragon in the fridge, either loosely rolled in a damp paper towel and then placed in a plastic bag or in a jar of water loosely covered in plastic. Tarragon is not well-suited for drying, as it loses a lot of its flavor. If you want to save some for later, follow Deborah Madison's suggestions: “Working tarragon into herb butter or steeping branches in oil or vinegar is perhaps a better way to preserve its flavor, at least for a limited time.”
More: Here are 5 ways to flavor your butter with fresh herbs.
Once you're ready to starting using your fresh tarragon, strip the leaves (2, pictured far above) from the stalks (1, far above) and chop it up (3, above) as needed for your use. Remember to add it at the end of cooking; otherwise, its flavor will be diminished. Here are 5 foods that could use more tarragon:
Next, add tarragon to sauces—all of the sauces: pesto, aioli, sauce gribiche, and green goddess dressing. Then go wild and add tarragon to a savory whipped cream with capers, a lemony dip with lima beans, a walnut and anchovy sauce, and this Semi-German Green Sauce.
But don’t stop with those five suggestions! Hang onto the last of citrus season and pair tarragon with grapefruit in a gin and tonic, with tangerines in a citrusy sorbet, or with blood oranges in a roasted capon. Tarragon also pairs perfectly with fresh spring vegetables like radishes, asparagus, baby turnips, and scallions.
Bonus: While tarragon is one of the first herbs to appear come springtime, that doesn’t mean you have a limited amount of time to use it. As Deborah Madison says: “You might think of it as a stronger version of chervil, but unlike that delicate annual umbellifer, tarragon is a perennial and it is hearty, putting out its fragrant needle-shaped leaves all summer long and into the winter, though not necessarily through it.” So keep tarragon in mind when the farmers market is overflowing with summer produce: Pair it with zucchini and summer squash, fava beans, watermelon, and carrots.
Tell us: How do you like to use tarragon?
Sauce gribiche photo by Eric Moran, all other photos by Mark Weinberg