So, you’ve got plenty of parsley, rosemary, and thyme, but can these be used as a legitimate sage substitute?
It’s strange, but although it’s one of the Big Four (in the world of folk songs, at least), sage is actually missing from many of our kitchens and gardens.
It’s easy to find in its dried form, but it’s also easy to overlook when you’re shopping. You can often find fresh sage in the grocery with the other fresh herbs in the produce section, but don’t be surprised if the only fresh herbs available are basil, cilantro, parsley, and chives.
The good news is that if a recipe calls for sage and there’s none in your spice rack, fridge or garden, it’s pretty easy to find a substitute for sage that will work.
What is sage?
Scientifically known as Salvia officinalis, sage is a member of the Salvia family, related to rosemary and chia. It’s a small, shrubby plant, with soft, green/grey leaves, and surprisingly pretty flowers.
In addition to culinary uses, people once thought it had medicinal, or even holy, properties. It has been used for everything from warding off evil spirits to treating snakebites. Sage extract remains popular today as an essential oil for aromatherapy and holistic medicine.
Cooking with sage
This herb is called for in recipes in both its fresh and dried form.
Fresh sage is usually easiest to find in groceries during the holidays, as it’s a very common ingredient in traditional stuffing and poultry dishes; it also pairs well with fish and sausage (it should always be cooked in some form—fresh raw sage is not a pleasant taste). Other times of the year, it may be hard to source.
Fresh sage is a potent, stand-alone flavor. It has a strongly peppery and savory taste and doesn’t always harmonize with other fresh herbs.
Dried sage, on the other hand, is usually used in combination with other dried herbs. It’s partnered with basil and oregano in many simmered Italian sauces, and is a common feature in dry rubs, especially for poultry.
There are actually two forms you can find dried sage in: “ground” or “rubbed.” Ground sage is exactly what it sounds like. Rubbed sage is prepared more gently, with the dried sage leaves crushed or rubbed into powder. A recipe may specify one or the other—if not, remember that rubbed sage will have a lighter and more mellow flavor.
Cooking without Sage
This is where you need to get creative. Don’t despair! The absence of dried sage is easy to compensate for with a few other dried herbs, and there are few swaps that may work for the fresh herb as well.
If you have dried sage but a recipe calls for fresh, replace 1 tablespoon of the fresh stuff with 1 teaspoon of dried. The reverse isn’t actually true; it’s better to replace dried sage with another dried herb, rather than fresh sage.
Substitutes for Fresh Sage
If you’re making a recipe where sage is the star, it’s best to wait until you can source the real, fresh stuff. (So don’t try to use a substitute for sage in a classic sage and apple Thanksgiving stuffing, for example).
If it’s more of a supporting actor, though, there are a few alternatives.
1. Fresh Rosemary
This is a cousin to sage, and they share some of the same flavors, but rosemary is more floral and more bitter.
It’s also a denser flavor. Use about half as much rosemary as you would sage, and if a recipe calls for a few springs of sage to be simmered, taste for flavor a few times—you may want to remove the rosemary earlier than you would the sage.
2. Fresh Thyme
Another fairly close relation, thyme has a milder flavor than sage, with a little more mint and citrus flavors. Like sage, it’s frequently used with fish and poultry. It can be used as a sage substitute on 1:1 ratio, although it cooks more quickly and should be added a little later than sage if a recipe calls for a long simmer.
3. Fresh Marjoram
With a taste somewhere between sage and oregano, marjoram is the best, most sage-tasting alternative…if your recipe allows the spice to be added right before the end of the cooking process. It doesn’t work well with long cooking times or simmering where it can go a bit bitter.
Substitutes for dried sage:
This is easier. Dried sage is mostly used as a companion to a few other herbs. Most recipes will work if you simply adjust the amounts of those herbs when it’s missing, or use one of the following replacements.
1. Dried Oregano
Frequently found in the same recipes anyway, oregano has a similar peppery taste. As a sage substitute, it’s a stronger flavor; use around a 4:3 ratio of sage to oregano. (That said, dried oregano is faster to lose flavor than other herbs if it’s been in your spice rack for a long time. If your oregano is going a bit stale and bland, you may want to play around with that ratio).
2. Dried Basil
Dried basil and fresh basil have very different flavors. Dried basil has a subtler, earthier taste, so it can substitute for sage in a pinch.
3. Dried Marjoram
The only herb to appear on both lists, dried marjoram is the best replacement for dried sage. As with fresh marjoram, the dried herb doesn’t want to cook as long as sage, so it should be added a bit later in the cooking process.
Mixed spice blends
You may actually have dried sage in your kitchen without even knowing it! “Italian” spice blend is almost always going to contain sage. It’s very likely to be one of the spices in “poultry” seasoning as well. Check the label, and you may be in luck. If you have a spice mix containing sage, just use it at a 1:1 ratio.
The fun thing about herbs is that they’re never really an exact science. Making substitutions and adjustments is all about experimenting and tasting frequently. Start with small amounts if you’re uncertain and add more bit by bit as you taste. You may find a perfect sage substitute, or perhaps a combination you like even better!