Tarragon, the King of Herbs

Tarragon, the King of Herbs

Tarragon is best known as a culinary herb. Although it has its place in history as a medicinal, it works best in the kitchen. Since the 16th century, it has been used in cookery. Tarragon, also called Dragon's Wort, is one of the four herbs of the fines herbs of French cooking. James Beard, famous chef and writer, said "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."

History of Tarragon

History tells us that tarragon was not used by the ancients, but there were references to it in medieval writings as a pharmaceutical herb. It became popular in England in the 16th century, and came to the United States in the 19th century. It is believed to have originated in southern Russia and Siberia. The Tudor family brought it to England and planted it in their gardens there. True tarragon is unique, in that it cannot be started from seed, but must be propagated by a cutting. In the Far East, true tarragon was known as "little dragon," because of its serpentine root system. Because of this root system, many believed that it would cure snake bite. Anyone who has grown tarragon knows that it will literally strangle itself if not divided regularly.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein cautions you, "Warning! Be sure not to confuse tarragon with wormwood. The two plants look similar, but wormwood has a silver tint to the stem and leaves. Wormwood is poisonous!"

Medicinal Uses of Tarragon

Although chiefly a culinary herb, tarragon has its place in medical usage. It has been used to stimulate the appetite, cure colic and relieve flatulence, and as a cure for rheumatism. Because of its anesthetic properties, it has been used to relieve toothache. Tarragon protects foods as an antioxidant, important in the Middle Ages when there was no refrigeration. As a folk remedy, it can be used to promote menstruation, fight fatigue and calm the nerves. Tarragon has been used to aid digestion, as a mild sedative, and as a heart disease prevention aid. Tarragon tea is used to cure insomnia.

Culinary Uses of Tarragon

Because of its strong licorice taste, tarragon can overpower other herbs used in cookery. Fresh leaves are used in salads, as a garnish, and in sauces--particularly Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon should be used lightly, and you should avoid overcooking, because it brings out a bitter taste in the herb.

Tarragon enhances many dishes, such as beef, game, pork, poultry lamb and pates. It combines well with many vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and peas. It complements chervil, garlic, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. It is often used in pickles, relishes, herbed butters, flavored vinegars, and herb mayonnaise. It goes well with cheeses, eggs and yogurt. Tarragon that is stored in vinegars or frozen is superior in taste to the dried herb.

Tarragon Cultivation

Tarragon is an aromatic perennial that grows to a height of 2 to 5 feet. Leaves are linear, 1 to 4 inches long, and are borne singly at the top of the plant, with groups of 3 below. It prefers a rich, sandy, well drained soil with a pH balance of 6.9. The biggest growing danger is root rot from over watering, so make sure to err on the side of too-dry soil. Tarragon likes full sun, but does well in partial shade.

TIP: "The scent and taste of tarragon is disliked by many pests, so it is a great plant to intersperse in your garden to ward off critters."

When adding tarragon to your herb garden, seedlings at a local nursery are typically the French variety, Artemsia dracunculus variety satvia. If you buy tarragon seed, it is the Russian variety, and lacks the bold taste of French tarragon. However, Russian tarragon is much easier to grow and its mild flavor compliments fresh salads. French tarragon has more a more pungent aroma and glossier leaves. Russian tarragon flowers, while the French variety does not. Commercial tarragon comes from the dried leaves of the French tarragon.

Plant seedlings in the spring after all danger of frost. Set plants at least 2 feet apart. It should be mulched in the winter to protect it from frost. The shrub will die back during the cold months, but new shoots sprouting from the soil is a sure sign of spring. It can be taken up in the fall and brought indoors, but will do poorly, as it doesn't transplant well and needs plenty of light.

Plants should be divided every 2 to 3 years, to prevent them from strangling themselves.

Harvesting and Storage

Tarragon can be harvested twice a year. Handle carefully to avoid bruising the leaves. For dried tarragon, harvest the leaves in midsummer. Take cuttings from the stems, making sure to maintain a good shape. Hang branches upside down in a warm dry place, such as a closet. Store in an airtight container or tin. It will brown a bit when dried. It is best stored in vinegars or frozen. Fresh tarragon should be wrapped in a moist paper towel, placed in a plastic baggie, and stored in the fridge. This should keep the herb fresh for 5 days.

TIP: Rachel suggests, "To retain the most flavor during storage, freeze whole tarragon sprigs in an airtight baggie. Don't worry about defrosting before use."

Tips For the Chef

Add tarragon to long cooking soups or stews during the last 15 minutes to avoid bitter taste. Use in herbed butters, but remember the taste is powerful. Stuff tarragon leaves under the skin of poultry when roasting. Try tarragon in tomato sauces, and add to scrambled eggs.

TIP: Rachel adds, "Season boiled or steamed vegetables with fresh tarragon and melted butter. Its flavor compliments lemon and orange very well. Leafy branches make an attractive garnish to any plate."

Tarragon, known as the king of herbs, should be a primary herb in the well stocked herb garden. Its wonderful licorice flavor adds a new dimension to any style cookery.

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