Sage has a long history, most of it unrelated to food. It originated on the north shores of the Mediterranean Sea, where Greeks and Romans prized it for its supposed medicinal value. (Indeed, scientists have found that sage has antibacterial and antioxidant properties.) Sage was used as, among other things, an antiperspirant, cough medicine and witch repellant (no joke). Medieval Arabian doctors even thought the herb made immortality more likely. From a food standpoint, sage was used for centuries to preserve meat and brew tea. It remains popular today, mainly as a seasoning for roasts and soups.
Fresh sage comes in hundreds of different types. Most are grown purely for their looks, with only a few varieties being edible. Perennials all, they have small, thin, grayish-green leaves (with some cultivars having irregular yellow margins) and wiry stems.
When Is Sage in Season?
Generally, you can keep fresh sage year-round, either in your garden or a window planter, or buy it at a farmers market. Dried sage is carried in the grocery store spice aisle. Fresh leaves, however, are preferable because they're richer and more aromatic.
How to Choose Sage
Pick sage sprigs that have greenish-purple stems and verdant leaves. Avoid sage that looks shriveled, dry, yellowed or insect damaged. Again, buy it fresh whenever you can. If your supermarket doesn't carry fresh sage, try a natural foods store or farmers market, or buy the seeds at a gardening center and grow your own.
How to Store Sage
Once you've plucked a sage sprig from the plant, wrap it without washing in a dampened paper towel and place the bundle in a plastic bag for refrigerator storage for up to a week. If you grow your own sage and wish to dry it, use a knife or scissors to cut large sprigs, and examine them for any damage or insects. Next, rinse the stems in cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Tie a few stems together, turn the bunch upside down and remove the leaves along the upper stems. Finally, hang up these bunches in a dry airy room for at least two weeks. Dried sage will stay good up to six months if kept in a tightly sealed container after grinding it in a food processor.
How to Use Sage
Sage’s flavor is strong, so less is more. Don't add sage to a recipe until the dish is nearly done cooking, which will keep sage’s astringency from overpowering the other flavors.
Recipes generally call for sage in teaspoons or tablespoons, with roasted, broiled or grilled meats usually requiring the largest amounts.
The taste of sage is somewhere between that of black pepper and rosemary, with a hint of eucalyptus or lemon. It's a bit spicy and quite astringent, which is why it blends so well with the fats and oils in meat. (It also makes a great baste when blended with butter.) Sage’s aroma brings to mind that of pine trees.
The best alternatives for sage are rosemary or thyme, with the first being better for meat and the second for soups or pastas. You can also try different varieties of fresh sage, like pineapple sage, which gets its name from a scent that is similar to that of the tropical fruit, or garlic sage, which, appropriately, tastes similar to the bulb after which it's named.
Sage in Recipes
Treat yourself to tender, juicy, and mouth-watering Grilled Garlic-Sage Pork Roast.
Besides being wonderful as a meat seasoning, sage goes well with certain soups and beans, which is what makes Cannellini with Tomatoes and Sage so satisfyingly good.
For another hearty side dish, cook up a hot Sage and Garlic Vegetable Bake, which combines butternut squash, parsnips, green beans, onions, barley, garlic and sage.