Sage belongs to the mint family, alongside other herbs like oregano, rosemary, basil and thyme. Its botanical name comes from the Latin word “salvare,” meaning “to be saved.” Sage is an evergreen shrub. It has oval, dusty gray-green leaves with woody stems. Because of the fine, velveteen hair-like projections on sage leaves, they have a slightly fuzzy or fluffy appearance and cottony texture, which can make it unpleasant to eat raw. There are many varieties of sage, but the species used for culinary purposes is known as common sage, garden sage, kitchen sage, or Salvia officinalis.
Sage has a strong aroma and earthy flavor, which is why it’s typically used in small amounts. It is also used as a natural cleaning agent, pesticide and ritual object in spiritual sage burning or smudging.
Sage has a very long history and has been used since ancient times for several purposes, from warding off evil to boosting female fertility. Sage was utilized by the Romans to assist in digestion and was also used to treat ulcers, wounds, and sore throats.
The French turned sage into a tea, and once the Chinese tried it, they sought out the herb and traded large amounts of Chinese tea for just a fraction of the sage. In the early 800s AD, sage was considered an important crop because of its medicinal properties as well as lucrative trade business.
One teaspoon of ground sage contains:
- Calories: 2
- Protein: 0.1 grams
- Carbs: 0.4 grams
- Fat: 0.1 grams
- Vitamin K: 10% of the reference daily intake (RDI)
- Iron: 1.1% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 1.1% of the RDI
- Calcium: 1% of the RDI
- Manganese: 1% of the RDI
A small amount of sage has 10% of your daily vitamin K needs. Sage also contains small amounts of magnesium, zinc, copper and vitamins A, C and E.
Sage is known for its antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Volatile oils (distilled from the blossoms) contain the phenolic flavonoids apigenin, diosmetin and luteolin, plus rosmarinic acid, which can be easily absorbed into the body.
Medicinally used for muscle aches, rheumatism and aromatherapy, these oils also contain ketones, including A- and B-thujone, which may help enhance mental clarity and memory. These properties may be useful in treating cognitive decline and patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. In fact, sage, made into a drink from the leaves, has been called the “thinker’s tea.”
One study noted the history of sage’s ability to enhance memory. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover trial on sage involving 44 participants showed significantly improved immediate measures of word and cognitive recall. In healthy adults, sage was shown to improve memory in low doses. Higher doses also elevated mood and increased alertness, calmness and contentedness.
Sage also appears to halt the breakdown of the chemical messenger acetylcholine (ACH), which has a role in memory. ACH levels appear to fall in Alzheimer’s disease. In one study, 39 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease consumed either 60 drops (2 ml) of a sage extract supplement or a placebo daily for four months. Those taking the sage extract performed better on tests that measured memory, problem-solving, reasoning and other cognitive abilities.
In 2011, researchers reviewed traditional medicinal uses for sage for menopausal symptoms. Eight medical practices in Switzerland participated in a study on sage that involved 71 patients, all averaging 56 years of age, menopausal for at least 12 months and experiencing at least five hot flashes a day. Each was treated with a once-per-day tablet of fresh sage leaves for eight weeks. This preparation demonstrated clinical value in relieving mild, moderate, severe and very severe hot flashes, which decreased by nearly 50% to 100% over eight weeks in the treatment.
Sage has antimicrobial effects, which can neutralize microbes that promote dental plaque. In one study, a sage-based mouthwash was shown to effectively kill the Streptococcus mutans bacteria, which causes dental cavities. In a test-tube study, a sage-based essential oil was shown to kill and halt the spread of Candida albicans, a fungus that may also cause cavities. One review noted that sage may treat throat infections, dental abscesses, infected gums and mouth ulcers.
A study in mice with type 2 diabetes found that sage tea acts like metformin, which is a drug prescribed to manage blood sugar in people with diabetes. In humans, sage leaf extract has been shown to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity with a similar effect as rosiglitazone, another anti-diabetes drug.
In one study, consuming sage tea twice daily lowered LDL cholesterol and total blood cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol after just two weeks. Several other human studies illustrate a similar effect with sage extract.
Animal and test-tube studies demonstrate that sage may fight certain types of cancer, including those of the mouth, colon, liver, cervix, breast, skin and kidney. In these studies, sage extracts not only suppress the growth of cancer cells but also stimulate cell death.
How to Buy
Fresh sage is usually sold with the stem intact to preserve freshness. It is available in the produce section of the supermarket either in a bunch or in a plastic clamshell container. Look for bright-colored leaves that seem sturdy and aren’t wilted; they should be without spots and dried-out edges. Dried sage can be found in the spice aisle of the grocery store. Sage retains much of its flavor once it is dried. Drying concentrates the flavor and can give the herb a slightly bitter taste. Therefore, when cooking, less dried herb is added to the recipe than fresh.
There are two forms of dried sage: rubbed and powdered. Rubbed sage is created by rubbing the leaves together until they develop into coarse flakes. Powdered sage is a very fine texture that does not retain the flavor well, and therefore should be used in a timely manner.
How to Store
When kept refrigerated and wrapped in the original plastic clamshell container, fresh sage should stay good for up to one week. Once fresh sage has wilted, the flavor will be diminished and changed significantly. Fresh sage can also be frozen for long-term use. Dried sage should be kept in an airtight container away from heat and moisture. When stored properly, dried sage should maintain good flavor for up to one year.
How to Cook
Sage is often paired with other herbs such as thyme, marjoram, and rosemary and harmonizes well with garlic, onion, oregano, parsley, and bay leaf.
The versions can all be substituted for one another, but since the potency of each is different, the measurements will have to change. Calculate that about seven leaves of fresh sage are equal to 2 teaspoons of rubbed sage or 1 teaspoon of powdered sage.
To cook with fresh sage, remove the leaves from the stems, rinse with cold water, and dry well. Cut according to the recipe instructions; sage leaves are often sliced into chiffonade, chopped, or minced. Dried rubbed sage and powdered sage can be measured out and simply added to the recipe. The large leaves of sage can also be deep-fried to yield a flavorful, crispy chip that can then be used as a garnish or seasoning on a variety of dishes.
Whether you use fresh or dried sage will determine when the herb should be added to the recipe. Although fresh sage can be incorporated at the beginning, as it is strong enough to retain its flavor throughout the cooking process. Dried sage should be added at the start so the flavor has time to mellow.