It may be less widely popular than basil, but tarragon offers a level of vibrant, multi-dimensional flavor that no other herb can compete with.

By David McCann
April 21, 2021
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Among certain chefs, tarragon is known as "the Cadillac of herbs." Not because it's any more costly than its other tender, leafy contemporaries, but because tarragon's flavor delivers a certain sophistication to whatever dish it joins. In short, this herb's got class. And if you're not familiar with it, it's high time you introduce this elegant aromatic to your cooking.

What Is Tarragon?

Tarragon (scientific name: Artemisia dracunculus), is a perennial member of the sunflower family that grows wild all over Eurasia and North America. It is cultivated in other places as well, and is considered one of the cornerstones of French cuisine. In cooking, the leaves (and very tender stems) are used. There are many varieties of tarragon, but the French is most often used in the kitchen. It is one of the herbs that herald the return of spring, along with chives and parsley.

What Does Tarragon Taste Like?

The primary flavor of Tarragon is a light, far from overwhelming, licorice taste. And rest assured, the licorice flavor is so soft that even I — someone who hates licorice — can't get enough of the herb. When fresh, it also has citrus notes and a delicate spiciness. It also has some of the grassy flavor often associated with soft green herbs.

How to Use Tarragon

Tarragon is especially embraced at home in preparations involving chicken, fish, shellfish, butter, and cream. Lemon, both the juice and zest, is a great complement to the citrusy notes of the herb. Tarragon is also a primary example of how beneficial it is to use herbs at different stages of cooking. I like to add some chopped tarragon to a dish early on in the cooking process, to infuse the whole dish, and then sprinkle a fair bit on top right before I serve. This way, you receive different dimensions of tarragon flavor. 

And we can never forget Bearnaise sauce, one of the great French sauces (a "child sauce" of hollandaise), which owes most of its signature aroma and flavor to tarragon. Someday, treat yourself, and cook a beautiful steak, and serve it with Bearnaise. You will be so glad you did! Tarragon is also an indispensable part of the classic French seasoning blend, fines herbes: a wonderful medley containing parsley, chervil, chives, and (of course) tarragon. If tarragon is a new herb to you, try using it in ways you might use basil or mint. It's even a wonderful addition to a blend of salad greens for a bright, herbaceous touch. 

Fresh tarragon
Credit: Aniko Hobel/Getty Images

Fresh Versus Dried Tarragon

When I was MUCH younger, fresh herbs were a bit of a rarity in supermarkets, so my experience with tarragon was, for quite a while, always the dried version. And I have to say, unlike most other soft green herbs, dried tarragon actually manages to retain a bit of its flavor. The licorice is strongly in the foreground, while the delicate citrus and grassy notes all but disappear; however, it's still recognizably tarragon. That said, nothing compares to fresh tarragon. The return of my tarragon plants each spring is a true cause for rejoicing, and I use it with abandon. Additionally, tarragon is a central component of Herbes de Provence, a dried herb blend that I use quite frequently. The dried and the fresh are both worth using, but I would give the edge to fresh.

Substitutes for Tarragon

Tarragon offers a very specific flavor; one for which there are few substitutes. However, fresh chervil (if you can find it) is fairly close. Fennel seeds and fennel bulbs (as well as the feathery fronds) certainly bring the licorice notes, as does anise seed. Basil is also worth a try, but most of us are so accustomed to basil's flavor that it's hard to accept it as anything other than its glorious self. Of course, if you're simply looking to provide a burst of vibrant herbaceous flavor to a dish, you can certainly substitute one of these other soft herbs (like basil, chervil, or mint). Just remember, none of these substitutes will give you the full scope of tarragon flavor, but they can still hint at it. Though not exactly a substitute, dried tarragon is your best bet as far as bringing true tarragon flavor to your dish. 

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