There is a hierarchy of ingredients in French cuisine, and it’s pretty easy to identify some of the favorites: butter, oysters, chocolate. These are all part of our universal food consciousness, and for good reason (because, yum!).
One French favorite that may not get the attention it deserves on our side of the Atlantic may look unassuming, but it packs big flavor. Tarragon, known in France as The King of Herbs, is a staple of many traditional recipes, but less commonly used in everyday American cooking.
Tarragon is a tender, leafy herb with an anise flavor. For those members of the No Thank You Licorice club, this shouldn’t be an immediate deal-breaker, because that flavor mingles with earthy herbal notes that create something much more complex and subtle than a piece of licorice candy.
That’s not to say tarragon is a subtle flavor, because it is distinct and powerful. Like most herbs, a little bit goes a long way, and it holds up well to other strong flavors—especially other herbs, which makes it a natural addition to the traditional mix of tarragon, parsley, chives, and chervil known as fines herbes.
You may recognize tarragon as a base flavor in classic Béarnaise sauce, but it is versatile and at home in any variety of dishes. To experiment with tarragon, start with otherwise neutral and lightly-flavored dishes, like a cold chicken salad, vegetable pot pie, a cold tomato salad, or a simple omelet until you feel confident exploring other combinations.
Use tarragon like you would any other summer herb, like in pesto or green goddess dressing. Sprinkle it over freshly fried shoestring potatoes or stirred into a simple vinaigrette to toss with blanched green beans or tender butter lettuce.
Like anything anise-flavored, tarragon is a beautiful ingredient for sweet applications. Steep a simple syrup with leftover tarragon stems to lightly poach peaches or sweeten a fizzy lemonade. Mince the leaves to sprinkle over a warm plum tart or slices of grilled pineapple.
Though tarragon can be found both fresh and dry, dried tarragon loses its flavor quickly. To use fresh tarragon, strip the leaves from the woody stem. Chop or mince the leaves just before using. Refrigerate any leftover tarragon on its stem, wrapped in a damp paper towel.