Growing and using tarragon

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French tarragonDescribed as the Rolls Royce of herbs, French tarragon, with its aromatic anise flavour, can turn ordinary dishes into masterpieces. Learn how to grow it and use it in the kitchen.

To the French, it’s the king of the crop – forming the foundation of classic French cuisine. To the rest of the world, it’s an enchanting aromatic herb, enhancing many savoury and sweet dishes.

It’s the main flavouring in a host of sauces and vinegars, including Bearnaise, ravigote, verte and tartare sauces, and tarragon vinegar and Dijon mustards. When partnered with chives, chervil and parsley, you have fines herbes, the culinary mainstay of French cuisine.

But tarragon’s a friend to many dishes – chicken, fish, veal, eggs, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, butters and as a base for salad dressing. In medieval times the English believed tarragon it to be “highly cordial and friend to the head, heart and liver.”

Buying plants

When purchasing a plant, make sure you get French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Its close cousin, Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus subsp. dracunculoides), may be more hardy and vigorous, but it’s inferior in flavour to French tarragon. Unfortunately, only Russian tarragon produces viable seed and it’s this variety that is sold in seed packets. If you want the French variety, you will need to purchase plants or take cuttings from a friend.

If in doubt as to which plant is which, the two tarragons can be distinguished by their leaves. French tarragon’s are fairly narrow, while the leaves of Russian tarragon are larger and paddle shaped.

In the garden

  • Tarragon herbsFrench tarragon is an herbaceous perennial that dies back in winter. In cold areas, mulch the roots in winter to keep them insulated, or move pots into a sheltered, frost-free position.
  • Ensure your soil is free-draining. Add sand or grit if necessary, or grow in raised beds or pots. If the roots sit in water over winter they may rot.
  • Use large containers to accommodate tarragon’s vigorous roots. The flavour of root-bound plants will deteriorate.
  • Tarragon likes full sun, but in hotter areas, afternoon shade is beneficial.
  • Plants dislike humid conditions.
  • Young plants need ample moisture while establishing.
  • Keep feeding to a minimum. Too much fertiliser will produce fleshy leaves with poor flavour.
  • Tarragon tends to lose its vitality after 3-4 years, so divide or take cuttings regularly.

In the kitchen

  • Use fresh leaves, as the flavour of tarragon diminishes as it dries. The leaves, however, can be preserved in vinegar, which is then used in salad dressings and mayonnaise.
  • Heat brings out tarragon’s flavour, but prolonged cooking will bring out its bitterness. Add near the end of cooking and use sparingly as its flavour diffuses quickly through dishes. Cut leaves finely to release their aromatic oils.
  • Tarragon is traditionally used with chicken, fish and egg dishes. Use sparingly though, so as not to overpower. Tarragon and mushroom soup is also popular.
  • Tarragon butter is a great accompaniment to many vegetables, including potatoes, beans, broccoli, courgettes, asparagus and mushrooms. Use 1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped tarragon per 150g softened butter. Blend together in a food processor. Can be stored in the fridge to be used within a few days or frozen for up to 12 months.
  • Add fresh tarragon, chopped finely, to mayonnaise to serve with salmon.
  • Add a sprig or two to green salads to impart a mild aniseed flavour.


Tarragon vinegar

There are two ways to make tarragon vinegar – one is to steep the herb in vinegar for 2-4 weeks, the other, for those who can’t wait, is to heat the vinegar and leaves then let it sit for a couple of hours. The latter can be used straight away.

Place 600ml white wine vinegar and two good handfuls of tarragon leaves in a ceramic bowl, cover and place the bowl in a saucepan of water. Bring the water to the boil – the vinegar will heat up and the leaves will begin to infuse their flavour. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set aside to cool for a couple of hours. Pour into a sterilised bottle and label – or use it to make tarragon mustard sauce, below.

Tarragon mustard sauce

¼ cup tarragon vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼ cup evaporated milk (chill for 10 minutes in freezer)
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1 shallot, finely chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place tarragon vinegar and Dijon mustard in a blender and process. Add evaporated milk. With the blender running, slowly add the olive oil until well blended. Add fresh tarragon, shallot, salt and pepper. Blend together then bottle.

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