Tarragon is a culinary herb from the sunflower family that has a bittersweet taste and an aromatic quality similar to anise. It is an important herb in French cuisine, being one of the four herbs in the mixture fines herbes, and is a prime ingredient in Bérnaise sauce. It is often used in French cooking for egg, chicken, and fish dishes.
Fresh tarragon looks a bit like fresh green grass that is sprouting from a thin stem; the medium-length leaves have a ridge through the center and come to a point at the end. You will find both fresh sprigs of tarragon and dried tarragon in the grocery store. You may also find fresh tarragon at specialty markets and farmers markets.
Because tarragon has a potent flavor, it is important to understand how to best use it when cooking. You can use both dried and fresh tarragon in your recipes, just keep in mind that dried has a much more concentrated, intense flavor than fresh. Thus, dried tarragon should be used sparingly. As a rule, 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon equals 1 teaspoon dried.
While the French call tarragon the "king of herbs," Americans have not taken to its flavor as quickly as they have with basil or chives. If you are not familiar with the herb, you might ease into using it by putting a pinch on a baked potato, adding it to potato salad, or sprinkling it on egg dishes as an introduction.
Tarragon's anise aroma also works well with tomatoes and carrots. Try sprinkling some over grilled summer vegetables or a green salad, especially if it includes watermelon.
Tarragon is also a wonderful flavoring for vinegar. Put fresh tarragon sprigs into a sterilized bottle of distilled white vinegar. Taste it after a few days and continue steeping until it suits your taste. Once the desired strength is achieved, remove the sprigs. Tarragon is also a good herb to use in infused oils.
If you run out of tarragon, you can substitute chervil or a dash of fennel seed or anise seed in a pinch, but the flavor will not be as intended.
To retain the most flavor of fresh tarragon during storage, freeze whole sprigs in an airtight baggie and use within three to five months. There is no need to defrost it before using. Dried tarragon should be kept in a sealed container in a cool, dark place and used within one year.
Vinegar can also be used to preserve fresh tarragon sprigs. Place the fresh tarragon in a container with vinegar and store in the refrigerator. Before use, rinse the sprigs and pat dry. Use the preserved tarragon in sauces, flavored butter, or any recipe where fresh tarragon is not required.
Tarragon works very well in sauces, especially those that are creamy. A classic Bearnaise sauce is made from a reduction of vinegar and wine mixed with shallots and tarragon and thickened with egg yolks and butter. It is a traditional accompaniment to a tenderloin steak, as well as fish and vegetables. Another delicious sauce made with tarragon and tomatoes is perfect for seared chicken breasts.
Instead of cocktail sauce, try a creamy tarragon sauce for dipping shrimp, made with dried tarragon, chervil, and basil mixed with sour cream. It is also delicious served with meat, fish, or vegetables as a condiment. Similar is an herbed mustard aioli sauce; this quick cold sauce is put together with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, tarragon, and garlic. You can also make a creamy tarragon salad dressing using Dijon mustard, fresh tarragon, and tarragon vinegar.
Two luxurious lobster dishes feature tarragon as the star flavoring. Lobster a l'Americaine is a recipe of lobster simmered in a tarragon tomato sauce that is then flamed with cognac, while lobster Thermidor combines lobster with a bechamel sauce that includes shallots, tarragon, and mustard.