For many people, sage is that dried herb used once a year in the stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. But the wonderful flavor and aroma of fresh sage should be enjoyed year-round—its scent reminds me of eucalyptus and its taste of the tannin in a good red wine, with hints of lemon and thyme.
A shrubby perennial with delicate bluish-pink flowers, sage thrives on the dusty hills of dry, sunny climates and is native to southeastern Europe. Fittingly, Italy’s robust cuisine is a perfect match for fresh sage, as in the classic saltimbocca—pan-fried veal filets wrapped around prosciutto and sage.
If you’ve not experienced cooking with fresh sage, try this classic sauce for pasta: heat 1/4 cup butter (or olive oil, as I prefer). Add a dozen or so sage leaves. Cook until the sage leaves start to crisp (and if using butter, it turns deep amber). Add a squeeze of lemon and toss with cheese ravioli or tortellini.
This recipe demonstrates deliciously that sage is bes t when carried by the fat in the dish. With its slightly astringent bite, fresh sage cuts through richness, whether it’s a butter sauce, an oily fish like salmon, or the skin of a roasted chicken. In the same way, sage balances the sweetness of winter squash or caramelized onions—other classic partners for the herb.
Sage is best cooked. Like thyme and rosemary, sage is one of those hearty herbs of which a little can go a long way and which is best when cooked. Raw fresh sage feels a little harsh on the tongue, both in texture and in flavor. If you use it raw, say in a spread, use only small, tender leaves and chop them finely.
When you cook with sage, add it early on to starchy or mild-flavored ingredients such as grains, squashes, beans, and meats, so that they can absorb its assertive flavor. Outspoken ingredients, such as garlic or fish, can handle the bittersweet strength of barely cooked sage quite well.
Buy dried sage in whole leaf form. In summer, I use fresh sage exclusively, picking the leaves from my sage plant as I need them. Fresh sage leaves don’t keep well. If you don’t have a plant—they’re a great addition to an herb garden or even a flower garden—you can keep a few sprigs in a jar of water or in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a few days.
As for dried rubbed or ground sage, I generally avoid it; by the time it’s been dried, ground, and jarred, it has lost much of the volatile oils that make sage so special.
Instead, I either dry my own sage or look for dried whole leaves, available at some specialty markets and by mail-order. If a recipe calls for dried or ground sage, I simply rub the dried leaves between my fingers or grind them just before use in an electric spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. If using dried in place of fresh, use half the amount.
Experiment with fresh sage
• Top salmon fillets with a chain of whole sage leaves and then bake. The leaves add flavor and look pretty, too.
• Add finely chopped tender sage leaves to soft whipped cream cheese. Season with a drop of lemon juice and some black pepper; spread on crackers.
• Fry whole sage leaves for a mildly pungent, pretty garnish: sauté in hot olive oil seasoned with a dash of sea salt until the leaves are crisp.
• Add chopped sage to mushroom risotto for a subtle layer of floral spiciness.
• Toss diced potatoes with some olive oil, salt, minced garlic, and chopped sage leaves. Roast and serve with grated parmigiano reggiano.
• Cook white beans with sage, garlic, and black pepper to create a richly flavored vegetarian stew.