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.
Sage also has a long and fascinating history as both a culinary and a medicinal herb. So what is sage, anyway? Let’s share some sage advice about this 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.
And while it definitely won’t make you immortal, sage could have several health benefits. Not only is sage used to improve brain function (studies confirm it aids cognition and are investigating whether it may be able to help fight Alzheimer’s and dementia), but sage could also aid in:
- helping settle your stomach with gut relaxing effects
- helping to relieve muscle and joint pain
- promoting oral health (long before toothpaste was invented, many people chewed sage leaves to clean their teeth, and studies show it does have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties)
- soothing a sore throat
- easing hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause
- helping to control blood sugar
- possibly even helping to reduce anxiety and depression
Be aware, though, that while small amounts of sage in food are safe for most people, it’s recommended that if you’re pregnant or have epilepsy that you check with your doctor first before taking any natural or herbal remedies.
There are hundreds of different types of sage, most of which aren’t actually edible, although one (Salvia divinorum) can be 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, not made for seasoning, sages are clary sage and Russian sage, which are planted as ornamentals and made into essential oils for aromatherapy or topical applications.
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. Lucky for all your green (or not so green) thumbs, sage is hardy and will survive well into the fall in most regions and return the following year.
Sage belongs to the same family as rosemary, mint, and basil, but it has a particularly pungent earthiness with some astringency and a spicy character — a bit like the smell of eucalyptus and pine (and some say similar to cannabis).
It has just a smidge of sweetness, but put too much in your food, and it’ll quickly take over the show and overpower everything with an unfriendly bitterness. Moderation is key with sage.
If you use old, dried sage it will taste lackluster and musty. But a small amount of fresh sage gives a 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 fall recipes like this brussels sprouts with brown butter and sage or stirred into softened butter for rubbing on meat or melting onto bread, rice, or vegetables. You can even add it to a fancy cocktail.
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 a couple of 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 sage’s bee’s knees.
- Sage works well with bourbon. This sage gold rush includes sage honey syrup for an extra layer of flavor.
- Tequila, anyone? Try a tequila sage smash sweetened with agave.
- Don’t forget vodka, as in this ginger sage martini.
Throw a handful of sage leaves on hot coals when grilling. (Tip: 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 or this grilled chicken sausages with peach-sage skewers recipe.
As an added bonus, the aromatic smoke will help keep bugs away for those of you living in bug central.
Fried sage leaves make a crisp and flavorful garnish for pasta, soup, roasted squash, and root vegetables, fried potatoes, egg dishes, white beans, risotto — in other words, pretty much anything.
Frying the leaves also helps ease the bitter bite that has been known to cause some people to give fresh sage the side-eye.
Letting fresh sage have a play date with olive oil, vinegar, honey, or even alcohol infuses the liquid with a lovely aroma and flavor. You can then use your infused creations in drinks (try sage-infused bubbly water 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 (hence the nickname “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 method of steeping it with loose black tea.
Candied sage is a less frequently used option that will add a ton of interest to your fall and winter baking. Try these chocolate-dipped cashew almond butter cookies, 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.
You can preserve fresh leaves by washing them, patting dry, and storing them in an airtight bag in the freezer for 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 quickly loses its vibrancy. (That’s right — don’t use that bottle left over from last Thanksgiving.)
Now’s the perfect time to 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.