When it comes to the savory end of the warm and cozy fall flavor spectrum, sage is perhaps the quintessential taste of the season. Rosemary and thyme rank high too, but sage is the chief flavor agent in many a Thanksgiving turkey—not to mention the stuffing—and a classic partner to autumn’s most beloved (and prolific) produce: pumpkin and squash.
It also has a long and fascinating history as both a culinary and a medicinal herb. So let’s find out all there is to know about sage, the fall herb all-star.
The Latin name for sage, salvia, comes from a word meaning “to save,” and the herb has been used medicinally for thousands of years, across several cultures (although the kind we eat, Salvia officinalis, is native to the Mediterranean). A saying that dates back to the Middle Ages roughly goes, “Why should a man die when he grows sage in his garden?”
While it definitely won’t make you immortal, sage does have several proven health benefits, so the ancients were clearly on to something. Sage is still used to improve brain function (scientific studies confirm it aids cognition, and are investigating whether it may be able to help fight Alzheimer’s and dementia); it can help settle the stomach and relieve muscle and joint pain; and it promotes oral health (long before toothpaste was invented, many people chewed sage leaves to clean their teeth, and modern studies show it does have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties—allegedly, it makes teeth whiter too).
It can also soothe sore throats, ease hot flashes and menstrual cramps, may help control blood sugar and weight, and possibly even reduce anxiety. Be aware, though, that while small amounts of sage in food are safe for everyone, it’s recommended that pregnant women and people with epilepsy should avoid using it medicinally
As if its physical effects weren’t enough, some cultures also consider it a spiritual purifier; many Native American tribes burn white sage for the purpose of cleansing places, and Celtic druids deemed it a sacred herb.
Before refrigeration, sage was used as a food preservative too. Its strong flavor would have helped mask “off” tastes in aging meat, but its demonstrated antimicrobial properties could have actually helped keep it fresh for longer.
While we may appreciate sage most for its flavor these days—and more often than not, take it for granted as a simple, time-worn poultry seasoning—it’s been a highly valued plant for millennia, and is still worth celebrating.
There are over 900 different types of sage, most of which aren’t actually edible, although one (Salvia divinorum) is consumed as a hallucinogen. The kind we’re most familiar with is common sage, also known as garden sage or true sage (Salvia officinalis). Sweetly scented pineapple sage and golden sage are also readily available at plant nurseries, and are edible as well as attractive and fragrant in the garden.
Some of the more well-known non-edible sages that are planted as ornamentals and made into essential oils for aromatherapy or topical applications are clary sage and Russian sage.
If you want a ready supply of fresh sage, you can easily grow a pot indoors, or plant it outside if you have the space. It’s hardy and will survive well into the fall in most regions, and return the following year. “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” has more advice on growing sage if you’re interested.
Sage belongs to the same family as rosemary, mint, and basil, but it has a particularly pungent earthiness with some astringency and a spicy, resinous character a bit like the smell of eucalyptus and pine (and some say similar to weed). It has some measure of inherent sweetness, but put too much in your food and it’ll overpower everything with an unpleasant bitterness.
The famed English food writer Elizabeth David likened the flavor of dried sage to “old blood” and said it “deadens” dishes. Use old dried sage and it will certainly taste lackluster and musty. But a judicious amount of fresh sage imparts a beautifully fragrant, warm fall flavor to all sorts of dishes, from pork chops to roasted vegetables to butternut squash soup.
Simply chopped, fresh sage is great sprinkled in moderation over soups and fall pastas like pumpkin tortellini or gnocchi with sage butter, or stirred into softened butter for rubbing on meat or melting onto bread, rice, or vegetables. A few teaspoons will usually suffice to flavor a dish. However, there are plenty of other ways to use fresh sage.
Gently twist, rub, or muddle one or two fresh sage leaves to use as an ingredient and/or a fragrant garnish for cocktails with an autumnal bent. Sage pairs well with gin (try our Sage Advice cocktail, or our Madame’s Choice), but it also works well with bourbon (this Smoked Sage Cocktail includes sage simple syrup for an extra layer of flavor); tequila (try a Tequila Sage Smash sweetened with agave); and vodka (as in this Ginger Sage Martini).
Throw a handful of sage leaves on hot coals when grilling; soaking the leaves first helps them burn more slowly, so they impart more flavor. Try this technique with something like Sage-Scented Barbecued Chicken with Grilled Lemon, a Grill-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, our Tuscan Grilled Pork Chops recipe (but over a charcoal or gas grill rather than in a grill pan), or our Grilled Chicken Sausages with Peach-Sage Skewers recipe (swap in medium-firm pears or apples once peaches are gone). As an added bonus, the aromatic smoke will help keep bugs away.
Fried sage leaves make a fantastically crisp and flavorful garnish for pasta, soup, roasted squash and root vegetables, fried potatoes, egg dishes, white beans, risotto—pretty much anything, really. Frying the leaves also helps mitigate the bitter bite that can put some people off of fresh sage.
Letting fresh sage leaves hang out in olive oil, vinegar, honey, or even alcohol infuses the liquid with a lovely autumnal aroma and flavor. You can then use your infused creations in drinks (try Sage-Infused Honey Soda if you don’t do booze), salad dressings, pasta, dessert, and whatever else seems, well, sage.
Steeping fresh sage leaves in hot water makes a throat- and stomach-soothing drink that may also benefit your brain (there’s a reason it’s often called “thinker’s tea”), as well as your oral health and even your nerves. At the very least, it’s warm and cozy, and a little lemon and honey are nice additions. If straight sage doesn’t do it for you, try the Palestinian custom of steeping it with loose black tea.
Candied sage is a less commonly seen option that will add a ton of interest to your fall and winter baking. Try the chocolate dipped cashew almond butter cookies below, or add the candied sage leaves to the top of an olive oil cake or pumpkin bread. Or finely chop the candied sage and mix it with roasted, salted nuts for a party snack. Or use it to garnish cocktails, like this blackberry sage gin smash.
You can dry your own sage if you have an abundance. (Another way to preserve fresh leaves is to wash them, pat dry, and store them in an airtight bag in the freezer for up to several months.) When buying dried sage—also labeled “rubbed sage”—get it from the bulk section of your store, or from a specialty spice shop if you can, so you know it’s as fresh and flavorful as possible. Buy it in smaller quantities too, since it loses its vibrancy fairly fast. Don’t even think about using that bottle left over from last Thanksgiving.
Now’s the time to secure a new supply—preferably freshly picked leaves or your own personal plant—and start cooking up sage-scented fall food to soothe you during the chillier months. It may not cure everything that ails you, but it will undoubtedly comfort you with its festive, fragrant warmth.