Sage, a staple of Italian cuisine, lends itself to dishes ranging from risotto to roasted chicken. As a rub, the lemony, pine-like notes of the herb contrast particularly pleasingly with tender white meat. If you find your pantry lacking, however, you can substitute a number of alternatives. Before you choose your substitute, consider the flavor you want for your dish; some substitutes nail certain aspects of the herb but are lacking in other areas. Other subs add a whole new edge to the recipe.
Savory serves as a common substitute for sage, but while it offers a fairly close substitute in terms of taste, it features a slightly milder overall flavor than sage. In the same manner, it lends dishes a sweeter undertone than sage, which features a more earthy taste. Despite its sweetness, savory gives dishes a very subtle peppery edge. Savory works with virtually any kind of meat, but it excels as a seafood rub. For rubs, you're typically working with dried or ground herbs and spices, so stick with dried or ground savory.
Like sage, marjoram -- not wild marjoram, which typically goes by the name oregano -- lends your rub a woody flavor, with just a bit of a floral note in contrast to sage's lemon notes. This meat- and seafood-friendly herb tastes just a bit milder than sage, so you'll likely have to use a little more. Start with a modest amount of marjoram in your rub and add more seasonings just before your meat is done cooking, as needed; it's easier to sprinkle on more spices than it is to take them out.
Swap rosemary for sage if your rub is part of a warm, savory meat dish, such as roast beef and carrots or broiled ham steak and potatoes. Rosemary complements white and red meat and works particularly well if you plan on serving your meat with tomato sauce, potatoes, beans or eggs. This herb closely mimics the intensity and pine-like tones of sage. For a similar effect that shines in Mediterranean dishes, use thyme as a sage alternative.
The Poultry Trick
For a simple solution, the off-the-shelf spice blends labeled as “poultry seasoning” do the trick when you're short on sage, even if you're not cooking a bird. These blends usually feature a base of sage and thyme, along with a few other spices, such as pepper, marjoram, rosemary, oregano, parsley, garlic, nutmeg, cloves, ginger or even ground lemon peel. Of course, this blend gives your rub a slightly more complex and pungent flavor than sage alone, so go a little light.
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