By Susan Belsinger
“Sage soothes both youth and age and brings the cook pleasing praise.” Carolyn Dille & Susan Belsinger, Herbs in the Kitchen
The majority of recipes that we find for stuffing (cooked inside the turkey or other fowl) or dressing (generally cooked separately in a baking dish in the oven), use fresh or dried sage leaves for flavoring, whether the ingredients include sausage, oysters, mushrooms, nuts, dried fruit, traditional white breadcrumbs or cornbread. Besides its traditional uses with poultry, game, and liver, and in sausages, sage can add a rich and graceful note to vegetables, breads, and sweets.
Sage’s culinary use with rich dishes probably came from its reputation as a digestive. It was very highly held as a medicinal plant by the Greeks and Romans. Its principal use was as a calmative for the stomach and nerves. Regular use of sage tea was said to confer an even disposition to excitable natures and a healthy old age to everyone. Swiss peasants and American Indians used sage as a dentifrice, first chewing a few leaves, then brushing the gums with a twig.
Sage is much respected culinarily in England and Italy, where most country gardens have a sage bush, often fifteen years or older. The flavor from good sage stock does not deteriorate with age, however sage varies in flavor as much as some of the more delicate herbs, depending on the soil and weather conditions. Dalmatian sage from Yugoslavia is esteemed because the camphor odor is less pronounced than in sage grown in different climates. This aroma is also milder in the fresh leaf. The flavor of fresh sage has decidedly lemon rind tones over resin. The lemon flavor recedes and the camphor, and a pleasant muskiness similar to silage, comes forward when sage is dried.
Common sage (Salvia officinalis) seems to keep its aroma and flavor through cooking and drying. Dwarf sage ‘Nana’, white-flowered sage ‘Alba’, and purple-leaved sage ‘Purpurescens’ and the wide-leaved, German ‘Berggarten’ are all handsome varieties of common sage, with good flavor and aroma. The latter cultivar is very strong in flavor, so a smaller amount should be used in place of common sage.
Sage–it’s not just for turkey!
Tis the season for sage—so harvest and dry it—or bring it into the kitchen and get creative with your salvias! Here are just a few ways to use this cold-weather herb in warming winter dishes:
Turkey stuffing—I particularly like it baked in my cornbread, which I bake ahead and then crumble and let it dry out a bit.
Winter squash baked with sage, garlic, and drizzled with olive oil.
Oven-roasted root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, turnips, leeks, and onions) diced and baked in a hot oven with sage leaves and olive oil, perhaps sprinkled with some ancho chile powder or smoked paprika.
Pinto, black, red and white beans are much improved by the flavor of sage and it works well with green chiles.
Pasta e fagioli wouldn’t be the most delectable pasta and bean soup without sage.
Hearty stews, cassoulet and chili benefit from sage seasoning, not to mention its antioxidant properties.
Both risotto and pasta are wonderful when combined with winter squash, sage leaves, and toasted nuts.
Try fresh sage leaves in your biscuits or pumpkin scones.
Combine sliced sweet potatoes, apple slices, and onions (or not) in the crockpot with sage leaves and drizzle with a little maple syrup and add a few knobs of butter. Serve when meltingly tender garnished with toasted pecans.
My favorite seasonal fruits—apples and pears—are delightful with sage from sage apple cake, pear, and cranberry crumble to applesauce.
Sage honey is great for sore throats and coughs—taken by the spoonful or added to a cup of hot tea—I have some infusing now in local honey.
Sage graces the garden with its soft grey-green foliage providing a pleasing contrast to the bright hues of most other culinary herbs. It will grow to a bush about four feet in diameter, keeping a well-rounded shape with little pruning in mild climates. All of the sages should have a well-drained or gravelly soil and some added calcium where it is lacking in the soil. Sage needs full sun and will survive through cold winters if well mulched. It should be pruned in the early spring to encourage new growth.
A good practice to follow is mulching sage with an inch or two of sand. That, and the careful sanitation of removing weeds and dead leaves will usually suffice to spare the plants from the soil-borne wilt diseases to which they are susceptible.
Harvesting and Drying Sage
Like most herbs, sage should be dried in a warm dry place away from sun. Once the leaves are completely dried they should be stored whole in airtight containers. Sage should be crumbled, never ground, as needed for cooking; grinding completely destroys the delicate lemony perfume and leaves the harsher resinous flavors.
Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photograph whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker.
Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.