Tarragon and thyme are both commonly used in French cooking. They show up in many dishes together. How similar are they? Is tarragon a good thyme replacement and vice versa? Let’s take a closer look at these two herbs in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.
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How does tarragon differ from thyme?
Tarragon and thyme come from different botanical families. Tarragon comes from the Asteraceae family, which is the same family as chamomile and sunflowers. Thyme comes from the Lamiaceae family, which is the mint family, so thyme is related to basil and rosemary.
Tarragon and thyme differ when it comes to variety. There are two kinds of tarragon, Russian and French. Russian tarragon has much less flavor than the French herb and is not normally used for cooking. Thyme comes in several varieties, including a lemon-flavored one, which has the flavor of regular thyme plus a hint of lemon.
The fact that tarragon and thyme are not related to each other is evident in their different appearances. Tarragon has long, narrow leaves that look like blades of grass. Thyme has tiny almond-shaped leaves that are approximately the size of rice grains.
Another indication of tarragon and thyme being unrelated is how much their flavor profiles differ. Tarragon has a slightly bitter anise or licorice flavor, while thyme’s flavor is savory, earthy, and slightly mentholated.
Tarragon and thyme also differ in availability in much of the world, including North America. Tarragon is not as commonly used outside of French cuisine, which means that it may not be as easy to find everywhere. Thyme gets used in dishes from various regions, including the Middle East and the West Indies.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
How well tarragon works as a thyme substitute depends on whether you are using the fresh herb or the dried version as your thyme replacement. Fresh tarragon will not be an ideal substitute for fresh or dried thyme. It wouldn’t necessarily ruin a dish that requires thyme, but it would give it a dramatically different taste. That said, dried tarragon might be a workable replacement for dried thyme. It still wouldn’t be the best possible alternative, but the difference might not be as noticeable.
Thyme can stand in for tarragon in some cases, though the difference in flavor will be most noticeable if you use the fresh herb. The dish should still be enjoyable, but different. Dried thyme will be less obvious if you use it as a substitute for dried tarragon.
When should you use tarragon, and when should you use thyme?
Use fresh tarragon to make a classic Bearnaise sauce, which is arguably the most famous way to use the herb. You can also use tarragon to make tarragon vinegar and to flavor seafood and poultry. Tarragon is one of the main components of the French fines herbes blend.
Thyme is one of the main ingredients in the most common bouquet garni blends used in classic French cuisine. Thyme is also one of the herbes de Provence, another herbal blend associated with French cooking. In addition to these applications, you can use thyme to season stock and stews. It is one of the herbs in Italian seasoning, along with basil and oregano. Thyme is also used in some versions of jerk seasoning and for cooking fish.