Everything You Need to Know About Sage

This earthy, one-of-a-kind herb's potential spans far beyond Thanksgiving dressing.

Growing sage
Photo: Daniela Duncan/Getty Images

If I had to choose only one herb to have at my disposal, it would most assuredly be sage. I first encountered it, as most Americans do, at the Thanksgiving table. Of course, it was not beautiful (and beautifully fragrant) fresh sage. Oh no, this was that grey-ish powder from a jar. It was years before I tasted the real deal — and it stole my heart immediately. I know many people will tell you to use sage sparingly because it is "so strong," but I beg to differ. If you want to start out with just a bit, be my guest. But when you're working with fresh sage leaves, it's difficult not to use it with abandon.

What Is Sage?

Sage (salvia officinalis) is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that originated in the Mediterranean region, and is now commonly used throughout most of the world. Culinary sage is known by many names, including common sage, garden sage, true sage, and Dalmatian sage, just to name a few. It is an evergreen plant, with tough stems and broad, flat, greyish-green leaves. It has long been used in medicinal, culinary, and ceremonial applications.

What Does Sage Taste Like?

Sage has a very distinctive taste that is really unlike any other. There are some woodsy hints of pine, mint, and even eucalyptus. Some may also detect a citrus note, and others even describe it as spicy. I find it very earthy as well.

How to Use Sage

Though often described as "overpowering," I find that sage plays very well with others. Simply mince the leaves finely and add them to your dish. You'll hardly notice it in sausages, but if it's left out — you'll certainly know. In the U.S., sage is often associated with stuffing (or dressing) during the holiday season. However, the herb's versatility spans far beyond that. For example, a butter sauce with fried sage leaves is all you need to make an incredible pasta dish. Saltimbocca requires using whole leaves and will change your ideas about "fried chicken" forever.

Fresh sage gets along beautifully with beans, potatoes, poultry, pork, and pasta — while incorporating it into long simmering stews allow the herb's perfume to mellow and infuse every bite. Point being, you don't want to relegate sage solely to Thanksgiving. Try it anywhere that you want an herbal flavor that provides depth rather than brightness.

Give It a Try:

Fresh Sage vs. Dried

Everyone's taste is different, but in my experience... dried, powdered sage from the grocery store doesn't begin to compare to fresh sage. (It's a little like pre-ground black pepper in that respect.) Where the flavor of dried sage is weak and musty, fresh sage is unmistakable and robustly herbaceous. I will say that if you grow sage at home and dry it yourself, it will reward you with a fair amount of sage flavor. It may not be a perfect replacement for fresh, but it is world's better than the muted powder from the spice aisle.

Substitutes for Sage

My instinctive answer is that there are none. If a recipe calls for sage in tandem with other woody herbs, like thyme and rosemary, your best bet will be to simply eliminate the sage if you don't have any on hand. A small amount of mint can hint at a sage essence, but use only a bit because mint's flavor is so bright.

As stated earlier, eucalyptus has similar aromatic qualities, but eucalyptus leaves are not safe to eat. There are, however, eucalyptus teas that are perfectly safe; you could try brewing a cup and adding small amounts of the tea to whatever you're cooking. But considering how easy sage is to grow in pots, I'd suggest keeping one on a windowsill over the cooler months and putting it outside when it gets warm.

Freely experiment with sage — especially if you have only used it at Thanksgiving. There's a whole world of dishes that make use of this wonderfully mysterious, earthy, slightly bitter herb, and it really will transform any dish in which you include it. Start with small amounts, and you'll be adding more before you know it!


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