Updated: Aug 27, 2020
By: Lucia Kearney
Sage | Salvia officinalis
I always get a little bit sad when I see the sage bundles left over at the end of market. I think to myself, maybe it hasn’t caught people’s eye, or folks aren’t accustomed to using it in their cooking (or maybe, people just have their own herb gardens at home!). Regardless, today I’d like to share a little bit about why I love sage and use it almost everyday. Enjoy!
An Introduction to Sage
Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a part of the plant family Lamiaceae (the mint family). Many culinary herbs are also found in this family, including basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and mint. The specific epithet – officinalis – comes from the Latin word officina which was used to refer to the specific storeroom in a monastery where medicines and herbs were traditionally housed. It received its Latin name back in 1753 from Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy (the science of classification). Native to the Mediterranean, sage has been naturalized in many regions across the world.
Sage is a perennial herb – ours survived the Minnesota winter handily to come back in full force this spring! Sage is typically green-gray in color, with purple flowers, but there are some cultivars that have rose, cream, yellow, or even purple leaves.
Traditional Medicinal Uses and Modern Studies
By Walther Otto Müller - List of Koehler Images, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=255453
Sage has been cultivated and prized by people for millennia. Ancient European peoples were said to use it to ward off evil, treat snakebites, and as a fertility treatment for women. The Romans called it the “holy herb” and used sage in religious rituals. Pliny the Elder recorded that Romans also referred to the plant as salvia (which is the word we still use in Spanish) and that they used it as a local anesthetic and a diuretic. In the Middle Ages it was sometimes called Salvia salvatrix, “Sage the Savior” and was often cultivated in monastery gardens.
Sage is high in several nutrients, most notably vitamin K; just one teaspoon of dried sage contains 10% of your daily-recommended intake for vitamin K. It also contains iron, vitamin B6, calcium, and manganese, and a large dose of antioxidants. In ancient times, sage was said to help with memory, and some studies have found evidence to back that up. Sage has been shown to improve memory in low doses, increase “alertness, calmness, and contentedness” in higher levels, and to improve brain function in younger and older adults. One study showed that participants with Alzheimer’s disease who took a sage extract supplement daily for four months performed better on tests measuring memory, problem solving, and other cognitive abilities than those who received a placebo.
The health benefits of sage intrigue me, but if I’m really being honest, the reason that I really love sage – the reason I keep it in the kitchen at all times - is the flavor that it adds to cooking. Sage can be used fresh or dried; used fresh, it has a stronger flavor. Monday morning, once market is over, I usually swoop in to save the sage bundles that haven’t been sold. I hang them on a line in the tiny house kitchen where they dry – I use them fresh while they’re fresh, and if they make it to drying out (that is, if I haven’t used them all already), I crumble up the dried leaves and store them in a jar for winter.
My mom is Argentine; the largest group of European immigrants to migrate to Argentina were Italians, so the cuisine that they brought along with them is very much present in Argentine cooking today. Sage is widely used in Italian cooking, so I ate a lot of it as a kid. For a simple meal, my mom would fry whole sage leaves in butter and serve them with pasta mixed with a little cream. My dad is Irish-catholic, but one of his favorite dishes – made on special occasions – is chicken saltimbocca. A twist on an old Italian dish made with veal, the chicken is pounded and then marinated with a mixture of sage, garlic, and olive oil. The chicken is browned in a heavy pan, and then broiled in the oven with a slice of fontina and prosciutto. The whole thing is topped with fried sage leaves. Saltimbocca means to “jump in the mouth” in Italian, and is one of my favorite special occasion meals.
I cook with sage almost everyday: I love using it as a base for soups and sauces. A chef I used to work for used to say that you add in the onions once the butter in the pan has gone quiet, and this is typically when I add in the sage (roughly chopped) as well. It adds great flavor to creamy sauces for pasta. If I’m frying bread in a pan, I’ll toss some sage in with the oil to add a little extra flavor. Sometimes I’ll fry whole leaves and eat them with butter on toast. Once winter squash is ready in the fall, I’m looking forward to trying this butternut squash and sage latke recipe from the New York Times.
So if you haven’t already, I hope you give sage a try!