Sage is an evergreen shrub with dusty gray-green leaves and woody stems. There are many varieties of sage, but the species used for culinary purposes as a seasoning is known as common sage, garden sage, or Salvia officinalis. Sage is prized as a seasoning for its strong aroma and earthy flavor. In addition to culinary use, this herb is also used medicinally and even simply as an ornamental shrub.
How to Use Sage in Cooking
Sage is perhaps most notably used in the preparation of sausage, although it pairs well with any meat, especially poultry. Sage is known for the distinct taste it gives to classic holiday stuffings. But it also is a flavor powerhouse in bean dishes, tomato sauces, omelets, polenta, chicken risotto, pesto, and sage butter for pasta and trout.
Sage is often paired with other herbs such as thyme, marjoram, and rosemary and harmonizes well with garlic, onion, oregano, parsley, and bay leaf.
The earthy taste of sage creates a nice contrast with sweet or acid flavors and is therefore often paired with pineapple. Sage can also be infused into simple syrups as an addition to cocktails and other beverages.
The large leaves of sage can be deep-fried to yield a flavorful, crispy chip that can then be used as a garnish or seasoning on any dish.
Cooking softens the flavor of sage, so if you want a mild sage taste, add it close to the end of the cooking process; if you like your sage flavor more robust, add at the beginning. But a little goes a long way: If you've never used sage before, add just a bit at first and see how you like it and add more to taste.
How to Buy Sage for Culinary Uses
You can buy sage fresh or dried and either whole leaf or rubbed.
Fresh sage is usually sold in a bunch or in a plastic clamshell container and with the stem intact to preserve freshness. When kept refrigerated and wrapped in plastic or in the original plastic clamshell container fresh sage should stay good for up to one week. Once fresh sage has wilted, the flavor will be diminished and changed significantly.
Fresh sage is often dried to preserve the flavor and can be purchased either as whole leaves or "rubbed" into small pieces. Because of the fine, velveteen hair-like projections on sage leaves, rubbed sage has a slightly fuzzy or fluffy appearance. As with most dried herbs, whole leaves retain more of their essential oils and therefore provide more flavor than their crushed counterparts. Dried sage should be kept in an airtight container away from heat and moisture. When stored properly, dried sage should maintain good flavor for up to one year.
Although sage is often distilled to extract the essential oils, these oils are highly potent and should not be used for cooking.