Don’t settle for those pale, limp pieces of green wilting under the salad bar glass. Learn about the types of lettuce you can buy to perk up salads, make great wraps or char on the grill. (Yes, I said grill.)
Lettuce is a cool-weather crop and easy to grow yourself, but most types are available year-round at the local grocer. There are four main types of lettuce: crisphead (commonly known as iceberg), romaine, loose-leaf and butterhead. Although crisphead is the least nutritious, all lettuces provide dietary fiber and vitamins A, C and K. The average lettuce has less than 10 calories per shredded cup! If you’re the health-minded sort, a good rule of thumb is the darker the leaf, the more nutritious the lettuce.
Before You Buy
It’s best to purchase lettuce that hasn’t been pre-cut or processed (but, I know, it’s hard to deny the convenience of prepackaged greens). Also, because of its large leaf surface, lettuce often retains pesticides. We recommend buying organic if it’s available.
Types of Lettuce
Crisphead, or iceberg, is probably the best-known lettuce in the U.S., in part because of its shrink-wrapped presence at nearly every grocery store in the country. Look for a round, compact, pale green head. Iceberg has a very mild taste and is generally eaten raw in salads and on sandwiches; it’s also found shredded in tacos and other dishes. Although iceberg tends to get a bad rap, its crunchy texture and sturdy leaves are essential for the classic wedge salad.
Where to use it: In salads with heavy dressings, dishes that call for shredded lettuce, sandwiches and overnight layered salads.
If you’ve ever had a Caesar salad, you’ve had romaine, also known as cos lettuce. With a long, upright head of crisp, pale green leaves sporting crunchy midribs, romaine—particularly the lighter leaves toward the center (the heart)—is more flavorful than some other varieties. You can often find romaine hearts packaged in your local grocery store. Romaine is sturdy and holds its own on the grill—or mixed with crunchy apples, pears and nuts in this Holiday Lettuce Salad.
Where to use it: In salads with rich, creamy dressings or spicy, pungent vinaigrettes, or on the grill, as in this Grilled Romaine Toss.
Loose-leaf lettuce has large, open, ruffled leaves that grow around a central stalk rather than a compact head. The leaves are tender with a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Commonly available in red and green varieties, loose-leaf lettuce is a bit more perishable than head-type lettuces and should be dressed just before serving to avoid wilting. For smaller heads, you can use the leaves as is, but for larger heads, we recommend tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces to make quick and easy dishes like Company Green Salad or Swiss Cobb Salad.
Where to use it: In salads with light-to-medium dressings, baby lettuce mixes, wilted lettuce salads, wraps and sandwiches.
Butterhead lettuce forms a loose head featuring soft, smooth-textured, red-tinged or pale green leaves that become lighter toward the center. Handle this lettuce with care; the leaves are quite tender and bruise easily. The main varieties are Boston and bibb (which is smaller and more pricey). The taste is mild and sweet.
Where to use it: In lettuce cups and wraps (like these Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps), with light, delicate salad dressings and on sandwiches.
Best Ways to Store Lettuce
While crisphead lettuce can be stored in the crisper drawer of the fridge unwashed (be sure to wash it before eating!), loose-leaf varieties should be thoroughly washed with clean water and dried before storing. Roll the leaves in several layers of paper towels or a kitchen towel, then seal in a plastic bag and store in the crisper drawer of the fridge up to one week. Store fresh lettuce away from ethylene-emitting produce such as apples, plums and grapes because, while harmless to consume, ethylene can cause lettuce to wilt. Due to lettuce’s high water content, it’s best to avoid freezing it.
Now that you know about the four main types of lettuce, make them extra tasty with your own homemade salad dressings.