Sage

Once honored for its medicinal properties, Sage (Salvia Officinalis) was essentially thought to be the key to a long life. The botanical name itself is derived from the Latin salvere, meaning “to be saved.” Native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor regions, the aromatic plant was considered by Ancient Romans to have extraordinary healing properties, especially when it came to the digestion of fatty meats. Later, the French produced an abundance of this mint relative to be used as tea. The Chinese became so enchanted with it that they would trade 4 pounds of Chinese tea for a single pound of French sage.

Varieties

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can try to learn all 900 species of salvias grown worldwide. But something tells us you might be more interested in the Cliff-Notes version. According to Growing Taste, there are certain popular varieties used solely in culinary ventures. Garden sage (S. officinalis) has been considered one of the best to use while cooking, along with Tricolor sage (S. o. ‘Tricolor’), which is highly aromatic and noted for a smoother, more mellow flavor. Berggarten sage, a smaller, bushier variety grows well in pots, perfect for any city chefs. Berggarten has large round leaves and is grown predominantly for culinary use. It can be extremely intense in flavor. Golden sage (S. officinalis; ‘Aurea’) is a bit sharper in flavor, while purple sage (S. officinalis; ‘Purpurea’) has spicier notes but is far less pungent than the standard garden variety. Several varieties from Central America have distinct, sometimes strong, fruit-like fragrances. These include pineapple sage (S. rutilans), peach sage (S. greggii), and fruit sage (S. dorisiana).

Different varieties bring many kinds of flavor options to any recipe. A little research and experimentation will help you determine which variety works best for each dish.

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Buying & Storing

Thankfully, this earthy and pungent herb can be found in the produce department of most grocery stores. When purchasing, look for leaves with a vibrant green-gray color and a silvery velvet-like down covering. Avoid if leaves have dark spots or are yellowing.

Although it’s usually best to cook with fresh leaves, dried sage is commonly stocked at most grocery stores. It will most likely be rubbed or ground, the latter of which will be more intense. For whole leaf options, try a special food store or online spice merchant.

To store fresh sage, wrap in a damp paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days. The leaves should remain fragrant with no dry edges or visible soft spots.

Another storage method is to cover the leaves in olive oil; they will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. The flavored oil can then be used for aromatic sautéing or in a vinaigrette.

For long-term storage, you can freeze for up to one year. All you need to do is wash the leaves, pat dry, remove from the stems and pack in freezer bags. Be forewarned though, freezing the leaves may intensify the flavor of the herb.

Drying is another option for longer storage. To dry fresh sage, place a fresh bunch in a paper bag, stem-side out. Tie the paper bag around the stems with string or twine. Poke some holes in the bag for ventilation. Hang the bag from a nail or a rack in a dry the area of your home—the drier, the better.

Store dried sage in a closed container away from heat, light and moisture. For best flavor, use within 6 months.

Preparing and Cooking

When cooking, sage can be chopped or left whole, depending on your preference.  A finer chop will release more oils and thus more flavor. Dried sage is stronger than fresh, especially if its been ground. When substituting dried for fresh, reduce the amount called for by half. If using ground sage, reduce by two-thirds.

The most important part about cooking with sage is to remember, a little can truly go a long way. The cooking process mellows the flavor, so it’s best to add the herb at the end for best results. Never use sage raw.

Flavor Affinities

The slightly peppery flavor in sage pairs especially well with fatty meats such as pork, duck, goose, and sausages. But in more modern American cuisines, it works especially well with beans, pasta, chicken, tomato sauces, and cheeses and is a delicious addition to roasted root vegetables such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Although we tend to think in terms of savory combinations, sage also pairs nicely with tart cherries, blueberries, honey, pears and citrus fruits.

You’ll see more fresh sage in the produce section during the autumn months, as it is a fan favorite for turkey stuffing. Herbal affinities include the classics parsley, rosemary and thyme, but bay leaf, marjoram, paprika and savory also pair nicely.

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Recipes & Techniques

Butter and Sage Sauce by Mario Batali

Fresh Country Pork Sausage with Pepper and Sage from Epicurious

Classic Sage Dressing (Stuffing) from The Kitchn

Fried Sage Leaves from Saveur

Marisa Roman
Marisa Roman is a writer and adventure enthusiast. She recently decided to sell her belongings, quit her job, and buy an RV to travel the country. Although her new RV kitchen is tiny, she still loves to whip up some culinary treats on the road. You can follow her journey at www.theroamansblog.com.