Sage 101 – The Basics

Sage 101 – The Basics

About Sage
Sage leaves are grayish green with a silvery bloom on the surface. The leaves are elongated with prominent veins running throughout. Beside the leaves, the flowers of the sage plant are also edible. Interestingly, there are over 900 species of sage. Botanically, sage is related to basil, lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, summer savory, and thyme. Sage is available fresh or dried in either whole, rubbed (lightly ground), or ground powder form.

The flavor of sage is somewhat complex. It is described as being earthy, slightly peppery with hints of mint, eucalyptus, and lemon. Sage pairs well with rich foods with strong flavors that can hold their own alongside the bold flavor of sage.

The name “sage,” Salvia officinalis, means “to be saved” in Latin. That name gives clue to the fact that the herb has been highly prized for its culinary and medicinal properties for thousands of years. In fact, sage has one of the longest histories of uses of any medicinal herb.

Sage is native to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, where it has been consumed for thousands of years. Sage has been used as a natural remedy since ancient times by the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Native Americans. Sage was a valuable commodity to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not only for its healing properties, but also because it was used to preserve meat. They found that sage reduced spoilage, which recent research has attributed to its numerous terpene antioxidants.

The prized status of sage continued throughout history. Arab physicians in the 10th century believed it promoted immortality. Europeans in the 14th century used sage to protect themselves from witchcraft. Sage was so prized in 17th century China, that Chinese were said to have traded three cases of tea leaves for one case of sage leaves from the Dutch. The value of sage continues to this day. In 2001, the International Herb Association awarded sage the title of “Herb of the Year.” Today, sage is used for sore mouth or throat, memory loss, diabetes, high cholesterol, and to treat other ailments.

Nutrition and Health Benefits
Sage is an excellent source of Vitamin K and a good source of Vitamin A. But well beyond its vitamin content, sage contains a variety of volatile oils, flavonoids, and phenolic acids that give the herb some important health properties.

Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Protection. Rosmarinic acid, one of the phenolic acids in sage, is readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract. Once inside the body, this acid (along with other compounds in sage) acts both as an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent, neutralizing free-radical molecules and reducing inflammation. Research has shown that increasing sage intake (as a food ingredient) is recommended for people with inflammatory conditions such as bronchial asthma and atherosclerosis.

Better Brain Function. Research published in the June 2003 issue of Pharmacological Biochemical Behavior confirms that sage is an outstanding memory enhancer. In this placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover study, two trials were conducted with 45 young adult subjects. They were given either a placebo or an essential oil extract of sage in measured dosages. Cognitive tests were conducted and results showed that even the smallest dosage significantly improved the subjects’ immediate recall.

Another research project presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference in 2003 showed that the dried root of Chinese sage contains compounds similar to those included in modern drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. Our ancient forefathers were wise in using sage to treat cerebrovascular disease for over one thousand years. Further research found a number of compounds in the root of Chinese sage that aid in combating or preventing specific chemical changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Improved Blood Sugar and Cholesterol. In a recent study, 40 people with diabetes and high cholesterol took sage leaf extract for three months. At the end of the trial, the subjects had lower fasting blood sugar and lower average glucose levels over the three-month period, along with reduced total cholesterol, triglyceride, and LDL cholesterol. They also experienced increased levels of HDL cholesterol.

Another study was conducted with 80 people with Type 2 diabetes who had poor blood sugar control. After 2 hours of fasting, subjects given sage experienced a significant decrease in blood sugar levels when compared with the control group. The researchers concluded that sage might be beneficial for diabetics in lowering glucose levels after 2 hours of fasting.

Precautions. Recent research shows that the amount of sage we commonly eat in foods is safe. The effectiveness and side effects of sage supplements varies among brands and production process, so it is best to consume sage as a food and avoid excessive amounts through supplementation. Sage essential oil is not safe to ingest.

How to Select Sage
Dried sage is usually available in the spice isle of most grocery stores. It may be available in ground powder, or rubbed leaves. They are not quite the same. The flavor of ground powdered sage will not hold up well when used in cooking applications, so it would be best used in uncooked dishes. The rubbed sage leaves are light, fluffy crumbled leaves.  They tend to hold their flavor better than ground powdered sage when cooked.

Some stores sell fresh herbs in the refrigerated produce section. Many people find the flavor of fresh sage is preferrable to that of the dried herb. When choosing fresh sage, look for the leaves to be a bright green-gray color. They should be free from dark spots or yellowing.

How to Store Sage
Store fresh sage leaves wrapped in a damp paper towel, placed loosely inside a closed plastic bag. Store it in the refrigerator and use it within several days.

If the stem of your fresh sage is long enough, you could also put them in a glass with a little bit of water. They can be kept on the kitchen counter, or placed in the refrigerator with a plastic bag placed loosely over them. Change the water every day or two.

Dried sage should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place such as your pantry. It will have best flavor if used within six months.

Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Sage
* For best flavor, add fresh sage to food toward the end of cooking time. Add dry rubbed sage leaves early in cooking to allow time for them to hydrate and release their flavor.

* Try flavoring navy beans with a little olive oil, sage and garlic. Serve it on bruschetta or a cooked grain like rice or quinoa.

* Add sage as a seasoning to tomato sauce.

* Try sprinkling a little sage on your next pizza.

* For an easy salad, combine sage leaves, bell peppers, cucumbers, and sweet onions with plain yogurt.

* When baking chicken or fish in parchment paper, include some fresh sage leaves in the package so the food will absorb the sage flavor.

* Sage pairs well with browned butter as a flavoring for pasta, chicken, and vegetable dishes.

* Fresh sage is an intensely aromatic herb with sturdy leaves. When adding sage to any dish, unless you’re sure of how much you need, remember that a little goes a long way. So, add a small amount at a time, then add more later if needed. It’s easy to add more, but hard to take it out.

* If you enjoy the flavor of sage and also like honey in your tea, try making sage infused honey to add to your tea. Add DRIED (NOT fresh) whole leaves to a small jar of honey. Stir to make sure the leaves are covered with the honey. Allow them to infuse for 5 days. Taste the honey. If it’s to your liking, remove the leaves. If it needs more flavor, add more dried whole leaves and/or allow them to infuse longer until the flavor is right for you, then remove the leaves. Since the flavor of sage is strong, start with 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried leaves to 1 cup of mild-flavored honey, and adjust from there, as desired. [Note: Using dried sage is important to limit adding liquid to the honey. This inhibits the growth of any microbial spores that may be in the honey.]

* When shopping for dried sage, you may see ground sage and also rubbed sage. There is a difference between the two. Ground sage is sage that has been dried, then ground, like most other herbs. Rubbed sage leaves were dried, then “rubbed” together creating a dry, fluffy powder. Rubbed sage holds its flavor well. Dried ground sage is less intense in flavor than dried rubbed sage. Dried ground sage does not hold its flavor when being cooked as well as rubbed dried sage.

* If you have a lot of sage and you want to preserve some, your fresh sage may be frozen in a couple different ways. (1) Chop the leaves and freeze a measured amount in each space in ice cube trays with some water. Transfer the sage ice cubes to an airtight container and use them in any application that calls for sage, such as beverages, soups or stews. (2) Wash and dry the leaves. Remove the leaves from the stems and place the leaves in a freezer bag. Remove as much air as you can from the bag and place it in the freezer. Use them within one year.

* Fresh sage may also be dried in a couple ways. First, wash and dry the sage leaves while still on the stems. Then dry them in one of two ways. (1) Tie a bundle of sage stems with leaves attached toward the cut end of the stems. Hang them upside down in a well ventilated, dry place away from sunlight. When they are completely dry, remove the leaves and store them in an airtight container. (2) Place your sage stems with leaves in a clean paper bag. Fold over the top of the bag to close it. Lay the bag on its side in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Two or three times a day, gently shake the bag to loosen the contents and turn the bag over on the other side. Check them after about one week for dryness. Continue gently shaking and turning the bag until they are completely dry. Then, remove the leaves from the stems and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from light. For best flavor use dried herbs within six months. They will be completely edible beyond that, but their flavor may dwindle over time. To see my video demonstration on how to dry herbs using this method, watch here

* Sage pairs especially well with cheddar cheese. So, next time you make something with cheddar, try adding a little sage to the dish.

* Sage pairs well with onions. Try adding a little sage when you caramelize onions, then add them to a sandwich, burger, or pizza.

Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Sage
Basil, bay leaf, juniper berries, marjoram, mint, parsley, pepper (black), rosemary, savory, thyme

Foods That Go Well with Sage
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Beans (in general), chestnuts, chicken, eggs, lamb, lentils, oysters, peanuts, peas (green, split), pine nuts, pork, poultry, sausage, turkey, walnuts

Vegetables: Artichokes, asparagus, butternut squash, carrots, eggplant, fennel, garlic, green beans, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, root vegetables (in general), rutabaga, squash (winter), sweet potatoes, tomatoes

Fruits: Apples, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, pineapple, pumpkin

Grains and Grain Products: Bread, bread crumbs, corn, corn bread, cornmeal, grains (in general), pasta, polenta, rice

Dairy and Non-Dairy: Browned butter, butter, cheese (esp. Brie, cheddar, feta, Fontina, Gruyere, Parmesan, ricotta), ghee

Other Foods: Oil (esp. olive), stock, vinegar

Sage has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Baked goods (i.e., biscuits, corn bread, focaccia), breads and bread crumbs, casseroles, egg dishes (i.e., frittatas, scrambled), gravies, Mediterranean cuisines, pasta dishes (i.e., gnocchi, lasagna, orecchiette, spaghetti), pestos, pizza, risotto, salads (i.e., bean, herb), sauces, soups (i.e., butternut squash, lentil, pumpkin, sweet potato, white bean), stews, stuffings

Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Sage
Add sage to any of the following combinations…

Bread crumbs + olive oil
Butter + lemon + Parmesan cheese [on pasta]
Butternut squash + walnuts
Cheese + tomatoes
Garlic + olive oil + parsley + winter squash
Garlic + potatoes
Garlic + white beans
Walnuts [in pesto]

Recipe Links
Our 51 Best Sage Recipes

11 Recipes to Make with the Ultimate Fall Herb: Sage

Sage Recipes: 45 Things to Do with Fresh Sage

How to Make Sage Butter

What to Do With (Way Too Much) Sage

Sage: 46 Things to do with Fresh Sage

4 Reasons to Grow Sage and 20 Brilliant Ways to Use It

Sage Recipes and Menu Ideas

14 Autumn Dinner Recipes Made with Smokey Sage

16 Delicious Ways to Cook with Sage

Pasta with Butter, Sage, and Parmesan

Sage Recipes

Sage and Garlic Pecan Roasted Vegetables

Vegetarian Recipes with Sage

Vegan Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Lemon Pasta with Sage and Spinach

15 Sage Recipes for Thanksgiving that are Savory and Satisfying

Vegan Garlic Sage Cream Pasta


Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.


About Judi

Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.

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