10 Sage Substitutes That'll Still Bring That Signature Holiday Flair

From marjoram to rosemary to tarragon, we've got ideas.

November 12, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

When cooking for the holidays, a few signature herbs and spices may come to mind like nutmeg, cinnamon, rosemary, and sage. However, before you fill your home with the distinct warm and woodsy aromas of these must-have cold-weather ingredients, you may want to consider a few herb substitutes in case you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for at the store.

As everyone heads into the holiday cooking fury in full gear, it may become increasingly challenging to find prized items like sage available at your local market. We’ve gathered 10 of the best sage alternatives for when you can’t seem to get your hands on this flavorful green herb this season.

What Makes Sage So, Well, Sagey?

This mint family, leafy green herb, adds assertive pine and woodsy notes to a recipe. Harvested summer through early winter, sage gains popularity during the holiday season for infusing aroma to signature dishes like Sheet-Pan Cornbread Stuffing With Sage. This herb’s feathery soft leaves add clean sweetness and slight bitterness that pairs well with ingredients like onion, garlic, dairy, and fatty meats.

Sage typically comes in three forms: dried, rubbed, and fresh. To maximize the flavoring potential of fresh sage, add it towards the end of the cooking process to avoid burning or releasing an overly bitter taste. By contrast, add dried sage towards the beginning of a recipe, so it has time to tone down as the cooking is underway. As for rubbed sage—dried sage ground into a fine powder—also add it to your turkey rub or stuffing seasoning at the beginning of your recipe to calm its potency as it cooks. Lastly, use raw sage sparingly, as it may be too overly potent in its natural form and can overpower a delicate dish quickly. Keep in mind that about one tablespoon of fresh sage is the equivalent of one teaspoon of dried sage and a half teaspoon of rubbed sage when making substitutions.

10 Best Sage Substitutes

1. Marjoram

Also, a mint family member, marjoram, is a woodsy, citrusy, and floral herb that closely mimics sage’s distinct aroma. Though very similar in flavor to the herb, marjoram is milder than its counterpart and does not maintain its potency well when cooked for extended periods. Ideally, when using marjoram to replace sage in a recipe, aim to add it towards the end of the cooking process. However, you can use this herb in its fresh or dried form at a one-to-one ratio of what the original recipe requires. Save the tough stems to add to your smoker to impart floral aroma to your slow-cooked meats as they roast.

2. Rosemary

This highly aromatic Mediterranean herb boasts intense pine-like and woodsy flavors that can quickly overpower a dish. However, rosemary can act as an ideal substitute for sage—when used in moderation—for dishes like savory scones or a loaf of bread that can uphold this plant’s bold fragrance. Much like sage, rosemary adds richness and depth to a recipe, perfect for the holiday menu lineup. Harvested year-round, you can count on finding rosemary available at the store almost always.

When using rosemary in place of sage, reduce the amount the recipe calls for by three-quarters. Additionally, opt for a greener hued plant that is slightly sweeter and milder in flavor than a sprig with older, gray-green leaves with a harsher, more pungent taste. To get the most flavor and aroma from this herb, use fresh sprigs as opposed to dried.

3. Thyme

Another cousin of the mint family, thyme adds earthy, floral, and peppery notes to a dish. When subbing sage with thyme, use a one-to-one ratio. This substitute is best suited for hearty dishes like game meat, root vegetables, and earthy mushrooms to balance the bright, intense flavors of thyme. If a recipe calls for fresh sage, stick to fresh thyme instead of dried to replicate the herb’s flavors best.

4. Poultry Seasoning

If you’re not having much luck finding the fresh herbs you need to substitute sage in a recipe, head to the spice aisle to pick up a container of poultry seasoning. This dried herb-and-spice mix includes a medley of woodsy herbs—like sage (yes!), rosemary, marjoram, black pepper, and nutmeg. However, you may want to keep in mind that this mix fairs best for savory recipes like seasoning a turkey or chicken and not so much for more delicately flavored recipes.

5. Oregano

Similar to marjoram, this mint relative adds depth and earthiness to a recipe. Though more pungent and peppery than sage, oregano fairs well under heat and acts as a reliable sage substitute, particularly in savory dishes. Dry and fresh oregano offers similar flavors; however, fresh oregano would be better suited for a salad or salsa, while the dried version would be best for a sauce or stew. As a rule of thumb, look for the tender and younger oregano leaves that are milder and more comparable to fresh sage’s flavor profile.

6. Savory

Though not as popular or widely used as the rest of the herbs and spices on this list, savory is best for substituting sage for savory dishes—as the name may hint! This mint variety, primarily grown in Northern and Southern Europe, adds peppery notes similar to thyme. Summer savory—harvested from summer to early fall—has a slight minty flavor and is more subdued than winter savory—that is available year-round in temperate climates—which has a more substantial bite. When using winter savory in place of sage, cut the quantity by half to avoid overpowering your dish with this intense herb.

7. Tarragon

Similar to savory, this herb adds pepperiness and perfumed intensity to a dish. Wrap it in a bouquet garni along with other aromatic herbs like thyme and marjoram to infuse into a stew or sauce. If you’re looking to add earthy spice to a recipe, the mild anise-like flavor and citrus notes of tarragon will do the job. Try to stick to fresh-cut, as the plant loses much of its potency once dried. Also, consider slightly bruising the leaves to help express the oils that add even more fragrance and flavor to a dish.

8. Bay Leaf

Also known as laurel, bay leaves are excellent for adding a mild pine and slightly bitter flavor to a recipe. Typically used in its dried form, bay leaves are great for infusing stews, stocks, or soups. Though the leaf can be consumed entirely, most opt to remove this tough, thick leaf once it reaches its flavoring capacity. This sage substitute will only work for recipes where the leaf can infuse a cooked dish, as opposed to other options like marjoram or thyme that can be served in its fresh, raw state.

9. Basil

Yet another relative of the mint family, basil adds peppery, slightly bitter, and mildly sweet aromatic flavors to a dish. Depending on the plant variety you choose, basil can exhibit more lemon, cinnamon, or anise notes. When dried correctly, this leafy, green herb becomes more potent and intensifies its peppery and mint-like tones. Ubiquitous to Mediterranean and Italian cooking, basil will act as an ideal substitute for dishes derived from any of these regions.

10. Italian Seasoning

Italian seasoning may offer just the distinct herbaceous flavors you’re looking for when in a pinch. This flavourful dried spice blend is made of a blend of ground herbs like marjoram, basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage. Made with many of the herbs mentioned earlier on this list, this spice mix offers a medley of woodsy, peppery, and earthy notes that can replace the need to have fresh sage on hand.

Tell us in the comments below your preferred sage substitute!
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Maki Yazawa

Written by: Maki Yazawa

Food Writer & Recipe Developer