The 'seasoned' gardener cooks with sage
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 15, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a member of the Salvia family which includes some lovely ornamental flowers and this wonderful, aromatic, savory herb. If you are interested in cooking with sage you could certainly purchase it in a small bottle in the herbs and spices section of the supermarket. However, since this is Dave's Garden, "For Gardeners, By Gardeners," let's grow our own. I do, and it is one of the easiest plants in my garden. The thumbnail image is a 3-year-old plant, placed in the care of Eeyore, the forlorn donkey and long-time friend of Winnie-the-Pooh .
Sage can be grown from seed which is readily available from the seed racks at most garden centers, seed catalogs and also from specialty seed vendors online. You can check the Garden Watchdog here at DG for online seed companies that carry herb seeds. It can also be propagated from stem cuttings by taking 2-inch cuttings from non-flowering stems near the base of the plant and treating with hormone powder.  If you don't have the patience or propensity to start your own plants, you can buy a small one at any nursery for a few dollars. Of course, sage plants can also be purchased online. Again, check your Garden Watchdog.
The plant will grow in relatively poor soil as long as it has decent drainage and is not greedy about water as long as you keep it from drying out until the roots are well established. However, as with any plant, it will perform better for you if you follow a few growing guidelines. The new growth should be pinched regularly the first year and the plant cut back by about 1/3 the second spring before new growth starts. Herbs in general need little fertilizer and too much will affect the essential oils. Addition of some compost when planting will get your sage off to a good start. Do not use a balanced fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10. Herbs need a higher nitrogen content (the first number, or N in the N-P-K). My recommendation is to just stick with the addition of some good compost once or twice a season. Garden sage is susceptible to a few wilts (Fusarium, Verticillium, Phytophthora) which can usually be avoided with good drainage. It could also have problems with powdery mildew and nematodes.  Happily, I have never had any of these in my garden on my sage, although they have hit many other plants.
There are a few named cultivars of Salvia officinalis available. The garden variety we have been discussing is hardy to zone 4 or 5. I give it no protection at all in my zone 6a garden. Some of the named varieties are only hardy to zone 7 or 8. Be sure to check before you purchase. Also, some have better flavor than others. 'Berggarten' (from Germany) and 'Purpurescens' (a purple colored variety, at left) are recommended.  I had a plant of 'Tri-color' (pictured at right) which was very pretty, but it only lasted 2 seasons and did not grow much for me. It is amazing that it overwintered for me at all because it is only hardy to zone 8.
Harvesting and preserving
Leaves should be harvested before the plant 'bolts' or begins to bloom. The leaves may be used fresh, whole or finely chopped. Most often, you will need to preserve your harvest for future use. For a taste most like fresh, rinse the leaves, pat dry and freeze in an airtight container. They may also be laid out in a cool shady place until thoroughly dry, or hang whole stems upside down in bunches. You can place them inside a paper bag to keep off dust, but be sure to allow adequate air circulation or the leaves will get moldly and must be discarded. Alternatively, dry the leaves in a dehydrator if you have one available. They should be stored whole in an airtight container. The essential oils are lost rapidly after harvest and keeping the leaves whole helps to prevent some loss. When you are ready to use your stored sage, it may be finely chopped or 'rubbed.' You will find that if you rub the leaves against a somewhat rough surface they will become somewhat powdery (I use a wooden base from a mezza luna, or try rubbing them against a mesh strainer). In my opinion this helps to release the flavor.
"As a medicinal plant, sage has traditionally been considered an antispasmodic, antiseptic, astringent, diaphoretic, expectorent, nervine and tonic. The plant has also been used as a folk remedy against colds, diarrhea, enteritis, venereal disease, excessive perspiration, snake bite, sore throats, tooth aches and cancer. The plant was thought to improve the memory. Sage has been reported to act as a bactericide and used in mouthwash and gargles. The plant is also used as a convulsant and antisecretory agent, and as Salvin, a preparation of leaves used as an antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory agent in treating oral cavity disease. The name Salvia is from the Latin salvere, meaning 'to heal,' or 'to be safe and unharmed.' "  All of this is from one source. There is currently research being done in the hopes that sage can be used to treat Alzheimer's Disease. Please use caution and do your homework if you intend to use sage medicinally. It is a very powerful herb.
Cooking with sage
My favorite food in the world is bread stuffing. I admit to using a pre-packaged mix (my preference is Pepperidge Farm - I use the sage flavor) following package directions. Add some finely chopped onions and celery to the melted butter and sauté just until soft. Fry a pound of sage-flavored bulk breakfast sausage until no pink remains, breaking up as you cook so it is crumbly (I add this to 2 packages of the stuffing mix). Mix all together adding your rubbed sage to taste. I still cook mine inside the turkey even though that is not recommended. I am careful to stuff the turkey just before roasting, make sure the stuffing comes to 170° F, and remove it all from the bird when it comes out of the oven. Refrigerate immediately after the meal. According to my son and granddaughters, it is NOT Thanksgiving without this easy sage/sausage stuffing.
For a very nice presentation with whole fresh leaves, loosen the skin on a turkey and slide the leaves up under the breast skin. You can make a very pretty design with the leaves that will show through the skin. This is especially nice if you carve your turkey at the table. Sage is an evergreen and you can pick fresh leaves late in the season.
When roasting pork, rub the entire outside with sage. Then cut small slits and insert cloves of garlic (from your garden, of course).
Sage and lemon are a very nice combination. If you Google 'recipe lemon sage' you will find a plethora of recipes, mostly for chicken. It also has an affinity for fish dishes.
Below is an excellent recipe for Apple-sage cake passed on to me by a friend.
1. For applesauce, combine apples, honey, lemon juice and sage in heavy saucepan; cook over low heat until apples have softened, about 30 minutes. Remove pan from heat; discard sage leaf. Puree apple mixture in food mill or food processor. Let sauce cool to room temperature. You should have about 1 cup.
2. Heat oven to 350° F. For cake, sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together in medium bowl; set aside. Beat 1 cup of the brown sugar with ¾ cup of the butter in bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy; beat in eggs until smooth. Combine the cup of applesauce and the minced sage; add to brown sugar-egg mixture, beating well. Gradually beat in flour mixture until well combined.
3. Toss apple slices with lemon juice. Butter bottom and sides of a 9 ½-inch tube pan with remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter; sprinkle bottom and sides of pan with remaining 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Arrange apple slices overlapping on bottom of pan.
4. Carefully pour batter into pan. Bake until golden brown and cake tester comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes. Cool cake on wire rack 15 minutes. Loosen sides of pan; invert cake on wire rack.
5. Dust top of cake with powdered sugar if desired.
It's not too late to get a sage plant going this spring. Just like my friend Eeyore, you can be harvesting your own sage for that Thanksgiving turkey. Who knows, maybe Pooh will even contribute the honey for the sage cake.
 Winnie-the-Pooh and Eeyore are characters from the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne, licensed to Walt Disney Productions
 Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DiBaggio, The Big Book of Herbs, pp 534-538
 Sage, Purdue Guide to Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Last modified 6-Dec-1997 (original references can be found in article)
All photographs are © the author and may not be used without express permission.