What Is Sage? What Are Its Flavors and Uses?

Fresh Sage. Photo by Susan Mary Risk [flickr]

Sage is an evergreen shrub with dusty green-grey leaves and woody stems. There are many varieties of sage, but the species used for culinary purposes is known as common sage, garden sage, or Salvia officinalis. In addition to culinary use, this herb is also used medicinally and even simply as an ornamental shrub.

Flavor and Uses

Sage is a highly aromatic herb with an earthy flavor. Sage is perhaps most notably used in the preparation of sausage, although it pairs well with any meat, especially poultry.

Sage also offers it's distinct flavor to classic holiday stuffings. Sage is often paired with other herbs such as thyme, marjoram, and rosemary.

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.

The earthy flavor 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 for the addition to cocktails and other beverages.

How to Purchase Sage

Sage is available fresh or dried, and either whole leaf or rubbed. Fresh sage is usually sold in a bunch or in a plastic clamshell container. Fresh sage is sold 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 fresh 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 flavor and can be purchased either as whole leaves or "rubbed" into small pieces. Due to 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 air-tight 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.