tarragon-it’s unique taste

July 18, 2021

What Is Tarragon-How To Cook With It

Tarragon offers a unique taste; we grow this herb for the distinct flavor of its leaves. They are called “ little dragons,” and they have a robust minty, anise taste with a hint of vanilla. We recognize its thin and glossy green leaves. It’s both sweet and bitter at the same time. The character is complex, and the herb makes your tongue tingle when you eat a leaf.

What Does Tarragon Taste Like?

Tarragon’s complex, anise taste is what makes the difference between Bearnaise sauce and Hollandaise sauce. Use it in soups, sauces, fish, and poultry. Tarragon simple syrup makes lemonade special. The leaves, however, are sufficiently delicate that you can cut them up in little bits on the surface of foods just like you would do with Parsely. It is a unique and valuable herb, but it is something to use carefully.

We like to call it “French” Tarragon, but it comes from Siberia and around the Caspian Sea. The plant’s botanical name is “Artemisia dracunculus”. it refers to the French word esdragon, meaning “little dragon.”

What Creates The Unique Flavor?

The pungent and licorice-like element in tarragon exists because the herb contains estragole, an organic compound that produces the characteristic flavors we have learned to expect from tarragon, anise, and fennel.

What Makes Tarragon Expensive?

Tarragon is not a good seed producer which keeps the supply smaller than that of many other herbs. It is one of life’s little luxuries, enjoy it!

What Will Substitute For Tarragon

Yes, you can, and you will make successful meals by substitution. Keep in mind that you will not duplicate that same level of pungency and the licorice-like effect.

Some Tarragon Substitute Ideas From Your Garden

If your recipe calls for one tablespoon of tarragon, try the taste of one teaspoonful of rosemary, oregano, or marjoram. Of these marjoram will provide the more subtle flavor.

Anise and fennel will provide flavorful similarities, use less of these than the tarragon your recipe suggests.

Add dill, basil, and marjoram in combination. When you make a combination you like, save a note in your recipe file, you won’t want to reinvent the wheel next time!

My personal taste leans to chervil if I can get it. It is more subtle, by far, than tarragon so use a little more. It brings you that same sense that you are eating in a French lady’s kitchen.

Here is more information on chervil, everybody should grow some.

The Seasonal Nature of Herbs

I grew up on a farm, a family “hobby” farm, but yet a farm. This creates very seasonal eating, and herbs do have seasons. Chervil and Tarragon are plants that we strongly associate with spring and spring foods. If you can possibly grow these two herbs for yourself, try them in your kitchen. You will be glad you did!

Using Tarragon In The Kitchen

Fragrant Tarragon pairs well with fish and shellfish, meats such as chicken, lamb, and veal and egg dishes. Use it with acidic flavors like lemon and vinegar. In most cases, the dried form of a herb is milder in flavor than the fresh. For tarragon, this is especially true. The dried form has much less taste and this fact makes growing fresh tarragon year-round more important if you can do it.

A Few Ideas and Recipes

Bearnaise Sauce

This is Julia Child’s Bearnaise Sauce. If we can’t learn it from her we probably can’t learn it!

Tarragon Chicken Salad

Tarragon Chicken salad is so popular that there are many choices of recipes. This is one I love because the chicken is roasted first and gives another level of flavor. If you are roasting some chicken pieces, throw in a few extra breasts to make the salad for tomorrow’s picnic.

A Very Assertive and Refreshing Lemonade

I like to make lemon and limeades with flavored, simple syrup. Simple syrup is just equal amounts of granulated sugar and water. Boil to dissolve and add flavoring. Add ginger for ginger limeade, and tarragon for lemonade. Strain it, and it will keep in the refrigerator in a sealed container for a month of beverages.

Tarragon Mustard Dressing

This is very good and can double as a sauce for salmon. There are many, this is a satisfying one

Tarragon Lemon Dressing

Tarragon vinaigrette is such a satisfying and easy way to add this unique flavor to your meals that I will add this recipe from Bon Appetit.

Combine Tarragon With Other Herbs And Spices

Try tarragon combined with these other flavors from the garden.

  • Anise-buy this in the spice aisle. Why combine them? Both tarragon and anise contain the flavor compound estragol which provides the licorice taste. By combining the two you will add a more complex version of the licorice taste.
  • Parsley-combine this with tarragon to produce a bright and fresh taste. Use the combination in soups, sauces, and salads.
  • Chives-add this subtle onion taste to tarragon in butter, bring a new flavor to poultry dishes.
  • Corriander-this combination will bring a nutty taste to seafood.
  • Chervil-for a unique spring flavor add chervil for a version of the fresh taste you get from parsley.
  • Mustard seed-mustard and tarragon are a classic French flavor. Try as rubs on meat, sandwiches and make marinades from the two flavors. The combination matches the sweet and bitter elements of Tarragon with the pungency of mustard.

Types of Tarragon

There are, actually, three types of Tarragon. One does not have much if any culinary value and is not of much interest to the cook, and the third does solve a climate problem and allows gardeners in more places to enjoy the flavor in their kitchens.

French Tarragon-(Artemesia dracunculus)

French Tarragon is part of the Asteraceae family, so it’s a daisy. Unlike daisies, it rarely flowers, and the few seeds produced are sterile. When people say that it is expensive in the grocery store, they are right. Cooks value them, and they must be developed from cuttings or by separating the plants after a few years. They are produced by purely vegetative propagation.

They are legitimately expensive to produce, and they are valued, growing tarragon yourself is very cost-effective.

Russian Tarragon-(Artemisia dracunculoides)

This plant is similar but the foliage should appear coarser. The plant should appear taller and more upright. Taste the leaf, the French Tarragon should have a sweeter and more citrusy taste. The Russian variety should seem more bitter. The two plants are often confused in the garden center. Tarragon is a good reason to develop a relationship with your best local garden center.

Here is the real problem. The Russian Tarragon starts out with a strong taste but as the plant matures it loses all flavor.

Hope for The Hot Weather Gardener

Mexican Tarragon-(Tagotes lucida)

Native to Guatemala, Mexico, and the American South West, this is also an Asteraceae and related to Marigolds. In fact, it bears a very Marigold-like yellow flower. The plant is not a real Tarragon but it has some very good features. It is hardy in zone 9-11, weather that French Tarragon will not accept in summer. Secondly, it has a strong anise taste with a hint of cinnamon. It is also sold under the names, False Tarragon, Texas Tarragon, or Winter Tarragon. In zone 8 it will die back in the winter but reappear in spring. It is 2-3′ tall and seems to require no fertilizer and no pests seem to like it. Here is a good research-based article from the University of Florida.

Summer is coming, and I have planted Mexican Tarragon in our new elevated vegetable bed. Here is a description of how it is going. The planter is very convenient to use and If you are running out of garden space this project might be useful to you.

Learn Binomial Nomenclature

By this, I mean what we call “Botanical Latin.” Make an effort to learn to read the plant labels. The names provide hints to the plant’s characteristics and tell you how to care for it. Also, knowledge will make it hard to sell you the plant you did not intend to buy!

Latin for gardeners-A little help.

How Did We Get Tarragon?

Tarragon is native to Siberia and the area around the Caspian Sea. Why do we call it French Tarragon? I am not sure, I don’t have solid evidence, but I have some hints. By the later middle ages, it became popular in French and Italian cooking. It continued to grow in importance in France.


Auguste Escoffier, who codified Classical French Cooking, mentions Tarragon 60 times in “Guide Culinaire”! American chefs who cooked in the French tradition, for example, Julia Child used it frequently. The herb continued to grow in importance in French cuisine, not quite so much in Italy. So that is my best guess. French chefs just loved the herb, and it became associated with classic French cooking.

Growing Tarragon For Yourself

How To Plant It

The new Tarragon plants need to be in extremely well-drained soil in sun and part sun. Plant them two to three feet apart. You can plant Tarragon near most garden vegetables. Tarragon is expected to improve the flavor of any vegetable or herb planted near it. For Eggplant, Tarragon will ward off damaging insects.

It requires a sunny, warm, and sheltered location. It does well in sandy, light soils that are low in nutrients. The soil does need to be fast-draining soil because the roots can rot in wet conditions. Sandy soil is just right.

French Tarragon-Climate Limitations

If you love the flavor of Tarragon, it is French Tarragon that ranks first. It does have some limitations that cannot be worked around. Here they are:

French Tarragon is hardy in zone 2-9. It is not going to live throughout the year in climate extremes. It will not accept extreme heat and humidity. In my zone 10a almost tropical garden, French Tarragon is a cool-season annual. It melts in our extreme summer heat.

The plant requires 6-8 weeks of cold. But not too cold! The temperature cannot get below -10 degrees Fahrenheit. You can mulch the plants which die back in winter to protect them from too much cold.

How To Ensure You Are Buying True French Tarragon

Plants can be mislabeled. Russian Tarragon has been sold as French Tarragon. Taste a leaf. The young Russian Tarragon leaf will taste strong, later no taste at all. The French Tarragon should make your tongue tingle, the Russian should not.

Practice looking at the leaf of the plants. The Russian Tarragon leaf should be coarser. French Tarragon should be labeled as such and it also may be called German Tarragon, Dragon Sagewort, or Esdragon, the French term. If the plant was grown from seed it will not be French Tarragon.

Find a trustworthy dealer, and grow your own.

You should be able to divide the plants every 3 or 4 years in spring and fall. To divide the plants, lift the oldest portion of the plant from the ground with a garden fork. Discard any roots that do not have fresh shoots. Trim those and plant in a pot of fast-draining potting soil. Potting soil comes in opaque bags, to know what you are getting from the labeling try this article.