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Fall for Sage

The herb's hearty flavor is an ideal match for braises, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and other cool-weather staples.

Fine Cooking Issue 88
Photos: Scott Phillips
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It’s hard to believe there was a time when the idea of cooking with sage would never have crossed my mind. I loved it as a beautiful plant in my garden, but its strong herbal aroma kept me from using it in the kitchen. Until one day, after realizing I’d run out of rosemary and thyme, I tried adding a few fresh sage leaves to a batch of potatoes I was roasting. To my delight, they made a favorite recipe even better. Cooking, it turns out, mellows sage’s potent aroma and flavor to a very appealing level. Pretty soon, my one big plant wasn’t enough to keep up with my ever-growing demand for this delightfully hearty, wintry herb.

Fresh is best

Although sage is available both fresh and dried, I recommend using fresh. Dried sage has a stronger, more concentrated flavor that can sometimes be bitter. If you’re flavoring a soup, a stew, or a pot of beans, or if you’re making a rub, dried sage, either ground or crumbled, is a decent substitute for fresh. But if you really want the sage flavor to shine, you have to use fresh leaves. Fortunately, sage plants are tough enough to withstand light frosts, so sage is available much of the year.

When looking for things to pair with sage, think rich, starchy, and sweet. It’s fabulous with pork; it boosts the flavor of potatoes, beans,  grains, and breads (think stuffing); and it provides a good counterpoint to the sweet starchiness of winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. It’s also delicious with apples and pears.

From garden to kitchen

Sage plants need lots of sunshine and do best in gritty, well-drained, not-too-fertile soil. Harvest individual leaves or sprigs several inches long. Rinse them to remove dust and gently blot them dry with a kitchen towel. Whether you grow your own or buy it at the store, keep sage as dry as possible, as moisture will cause it to deteriorate quickly. The best way to store it is in the refrigerator inside a sealed plastic bag lined with a paper towel. It’ll keep for two or three days.

Sage ideas

Here are more delicious ways to add sage to your everyday cooking.

  • Roast baby potato halves on a bed of sage in a roasting pan covered with a thin layer of olive oil.
  • Dress up Tuscan-style beans. Simmer cannellini beans with lots of chopped fresh sage, garlic, and pepper. Dress the cooked beans while still hot with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red-wine vinegar, chopped fresh sage, and garlic.
  • Whip up a quick and tasty pasta sauce. Caramelize onion slices in olive oil and add chopped sage and walnut pieces during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Season and toss with hot pasta and crumbled gorgonzola.
  • Make a sumptuous squash soup. Sauté cubes of acorn squash with chopped onion, sage, and garlic and then simmer in chicken or vegetable broth until tender. Purée, season, and add a little cream, if you like.
  • Make a rich gnocchi sauce. Toss cooked and drained gnocchi in a pan of browned butter and whole sage leaves and season well.
  • Cook up juicy saltimbocca. Lay a thin slice of prosciutto and a large sage leaf on a pounded veal cutlet; roll up and secure with a toothpick. Season the rolls and brown them in butter. Then make a sauce by deglazing the pan with sweet Marsala.

All the pretty sages

At the market, you’ll typically find only standard culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which has gray-green leaves with a pebbled, slightly fuzzy texture. But at herb nurseries, you’ll find many more sage types to grow and cook with. They have similar flavors, but they vary in shape and color. Be aware that there are some types of sage that aren’t edible; so for kitchen use, make sure you buy one that is (all Salvia officinalis varieties are edible). Here are some of my favorites (see slideshow below for photos):

  • Berggarten is a nonflowering sage, so the plant’s energy is devoted to producing lots of aromatic leaves.
  • Holt’s Mammoth has leaves twice the size of regular sage.
  • Woodcote Farm has large leaves and is resistant to powdery mildew (a problem with sage in humid climates).
  • Variegated sages are as beautiful as they are tasty. Golden sage has bright-green leaves edged in creamy yellow; purple sage has dusky purple leaves; and tricolor sage has leaves splashed with green, purple, and beige.


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