All About Tarragon

What it is, When to Buy, How to Use, and How to Store

Bunch of Fresh Tarragon
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Tarragon is a leafy green herb widely used in French cuisine. Its distinctive yet subtle herbal flavor is particularly well suited to use with fish and chicken, and as part of vinaigrettes and sauces. The appeal of tarragon tends to come from its understated side, so a gentle hand yields more successful results and helps its unique flavor—which has hints of anise—from overwhelming all other flavors in a dish. People tend to either love it or hate it, so consider your audience when adding it to dishes. 

Tarragon is an essential ingredient in the French sauce Bearnaise as well as certain combinations of herbs. It is also a popular herb used in flavored vinegar.

When and Where to Buy 

Tarragon is a spring and summer herb. It will show up in winter in warmer climates and at the end of winter in temperate climates (or from growers using greenhouses). Otherwise, fresh tarragon is usually only available in spring and into summer in cooler areas. Like many green herbs, heat will cause tarragon to bolt and turn bitter, so while it may still fill the herb garden with its fragrance later in the summer, taste it before using it if the weather's been warm.

Tarragon isn't as common as parsley or cilantro, so you may need to hunt it down at specialty stores or farmers markets or even grow it yourself. But if your supermarket features a variety of packaged fresh herbs in the produce section, chances are you will find it there.

Tarragon is also sold as a dried herb year-round and can easily be found in the spice aisle. However, as with most dried herbs, the flavor will be diminished and will not be as soft as the taste of the fresh leaves. 

How to Use Tarragon

Tarragon's distinguishing flavor lends itself to a variety of cooking techniques and dishes. Tarragon is one of the herbs used to make fines herbes (the others are parsley, chervil, and chives), a delicate herb blend used extensively in French cooking. Tarragon is also delicious all on its own in salad dressings (like this creamy version) and in sauces, especially cream or butter sauces that can harness its flavor without overwhelming it.

The fresh herb also works well used to season a simple roast chicken or as a flavoring for grilled fish. Used sparingly, it can be a nice alternative to fresh parsley when snipped and sprinkled on top of poached eggs, steamed asparagus, and roasted potatoes.

How to Store Tarragon

As with all fresh, leafy herbs, tarragon doesn't store very well, but you do have a few options. If you just need it to last a day or two, store tarragon loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the fridge. For longer storage, lay the stems on layers of paper towels, roll them up, and store loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the fridge, much like lettuce and other greens. This second method keeps the leaves dry, and less likely to rot, but won't dry out the herb.

What to Substitute for Tarragon

If you want to make a recipe that calls for tarragon but can't find any, you're in a tricky spot. On the one hand, nothing else will really taste like tarragon; on the other hand, parsley or chervil—or, even better, a combination of the two—can add that fresh-green-herb note in a recipe when tarragon is not to be found.