There’s a Lot You Didn’t Know About Lettuce, but We’re Here to Help

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Lettuce is such a staple that you may be apt to overlook how varied and versatile it really is. From basics like romaine and iceberg, to buttery Boston or Bibb, to fancy loose-leaf varieties that curl and twist and come in red and green, there are plenty to choose from. And they can do much more than fill out a salad bowl or keep tomato juice from seeping into your hamburger bun. Here’s everything you need to know about how to buy, cook with, and enjoy one of the garden’s greatest treasures: lettuce.

The Lettuce Top 5

Five must-reads for lettuce-lovers.

Is Lettuce a Vegetable?

Culinarily, lettuce is definitely a vegetable. Botanically speaking “vegetable” just means any plant, and lettuce is neither an animal or a mineral, so it’s a vegetable there, too. Because it generally consists of a variety of predominately savory flavor profiles, from mild to bitter, it’s almost never used in a dessert, the way fruits are — but you knew this.

Types of Lettuce

There are four main types of lettuce you’re likely to find in a typical American grocery store: Crisphead, or iceberg lettuce, is the classic crunchy, mild, mostly water variety that you’ll often see individually wrapped and looking a bit like a head of green cabbage, except it’s a lot lighter. This is also what you’ll find topping a lot of unfancy hamburgers or underneath the bacon and blue cheese in your wedge salad.

Romaine lettuce, also known outside America as cos, is the most currently popular variety. It’s got a bit more bite than iceberg, but is still mild enough to please even picky palates. Romaine grows in taller, skinnier heads called spears or hearts, and you’ll often find bags of three-in-a-row hearts of romaine at the store, with the looser outer leaves taken off. It’s also what you will get in any classic Caesar salad.

Butterhead lettuce often goes by the name Boston lettuce or Bibb lettuce. The leaves are mild and extremely tender — one might even say buttery. Heads of the lettuce are distinguished by loose, wide leaves with smooth edges. You’ll often find it in the grocery store in a clamshell with a bit of the root still attached, and the wide, flexible leaves make lettuce wraps much easier to make.

And finally there are a number of red and green loose-leaf varieties that don’t form into heads, like butterhead or iceberg, or hearts, like romaine. This is the lettuce you find most often at farmers markets and fancy grocery stores, or filling up a big bowl of fresh mixed greens. It often goes by names like Oak Leaf, Batavia, or French Crisp and it has a range of colors and textures.

There are also a number of other leafy greens you’re likely to find in salads such as kale, endive, arugula, escarole, frisée, purslane, radicchio, or watercress. These are technically not lettuces, but are the leaves of other families of plants, such as chicory, or brassica (the family that includes mustard greens and cabbage). These leaves tend to be more bitter, less mild, and are often sold with loose-leaf lettuces in packages of mesclun, or mixed greens.

Romaine Lettuce Nutrition

Romaine lettuce, one of the most popular varieties, is nutritious if not particularly filling. While lettuce is actually relatively low in fiber, a roughly 3-ounce serving contains 6% of your potassium, 5% of your calcium, and 148% of your vitamin A for the day.

Is Romaine Safe to Eat?

In April and November of 2018, there were a couple of massive nationwide recalls of romaine lettuce due to concerns about E. coli contamination, leading many people to ditch lettuce entirely over fears of food poisoning. Although the recalls are now over, concerns about food safety remain, and many people are understandably nervous. However, for the most part, eating romaine (and any lettuce) is perfectly safe.

Although any fresh fruit or vegetable — especially ones that are mostly eaten raw — has the potential to become contaminated and make someone sick, the chances of becoming ill are generally very low — especially if you carefully wash produce before eating it. And according to the CDC, fresh produce isn’t the biggest source of food poisoning; that distinction belongs to raw and undercooked poultry and meat.

So unless there’s a recall in your area, as long as you are properly washing your lettuce, it should be perfectly safe.

How to Keep Lettuce Fresh

One of the biggest problems with lettuce, as anyone who’s bought a bunch with the hope of eating salads all week knows, is that it has a short shelf life. And there’s little that’s less appetizing than picking through a pile of slimy wilted leaves trying to find the last few good ones. Luckily, there are a few ways to extend the shelf life.

The trick is to keep just the right amount of moisture in the space where the leaves are kept, with enough air to circulate. Too little moisture, and the leaves dry out. Too much, and they start to decompose. We’ve found the best way to do that is with a plastic storage container and some paper towels. And if they do dry out a little, a five-minute soak in cold water will often do wonders to revive them.

  • A Simple Trick for Keeping Greens Fresher, Longer in the Fridge

Can You Freeze Lettuce?

In general, not really. There’s a reason lettuce is on our Do Not Freeze list, and it’s this: The leaves are delicate and made of mostly water. The freezing process inevitably causes them to start to break down, so there’s no way you’ll end up with fresh, crispy greens for a salad or burger topping when they thaw. That said, if you’re planing to cook with lettuce (subbing it for escarole in wedding soup), juicing them (for homemade V8), or subbing them for basil in a pesto, you may have better luck.

How to Choose the Best Lettuce

Unlike, say, melons or avocados, selecting a good head or bunch of lettuce is actually pretty straightforward. Simply look for the freshest, least-wilted pick, with the brightest color, and the fewest brown spots. Once you get it home, wash it (or shake off the excess water) and store as recommended, above.

The Best Ways to Cook Lettuce

When looking around for ingredients to cook with, you might not immediately think of lettuce. But it can actually be quite delicious! Romaine lettuce especially, which has less water than iceberg, and grows in tighter bunches than Boston or loose-leaf, works well on the grill or even in a stir-fry! Here are a couple of our favorite ways to cook with lettuce.

  • Stir-Fried Lettuce with Garlic Chiles
  • Grilled Romaine Salad
  • Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid’s Lettuce Salad with Hot Beef Dressing

The Best Ways to Use Up Leftover Lettuce

If you’re making a salad and are worried that you’ll have leftovers, the best way to ensure that the leftovers keep is to leave the salad dressing on the side. An undressed salad can be returned to the fridge and will keep a day or two longer. However, if the salad has dressing on it, the lettuce will become too moist, and will likely wilt within a matter of hours.

If you simply have extra lettuce on hand, then you can make another salad! Salad pairs well with nearly any meal, and it doesn’t have to be much more complicated than some torn-up lettuce and dressing. And here are a dozen great dressings that will each make the salad taste like an entirely different thing. Or, of course, you could use your extra lettuce in any one of our top 10 lettuce recipes, below.

Our Top 10 Lettuce Recipes

What’s your favorite recipe or use for lettuce? Any favorite way to cook it?

31 Days of Vegetables: How to fall in love with vegetables in 31 days. How many of these splendid veg have you eaten this month? Take a look at the whole list and take our July challenge to eat every single one!

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