Perhaps the most nutritious and powerful vegetable of all is one that’s easily overlooked: lettuce! Let’s go beyond iceberg and explore the many different types of lettuce and how each one can make a delicious and positive contribution to your next healthy meal or salad bowl.
There are so many varieties of lettuce and greens popping up at the markets and stores, each one more beautiful than the next. If you’re in a little bit of a salad rut, reading about some of these lesser-known lettuces just may tempt you to try something new.
Loosely described, salad greens are any leafy green vegetable that is traditionally used in making a salad. It could be a beet green, a type of watercress, or a classic Boston Bibb.
How lettuce is grown?
Generally speaking, almost all lettuces enjoy cooler weather with lots of moisture and well-drained soil. In mild climates, they can be grown locally year-round, while in areas with four distinct seasons, they grow best in the spring and fall. With modern farming techniques and transportation, though, we’re fortunate to have many different lettuces available to us all year.
Butterhead lettuce is light, airy, and soft with buttery, overlapping leaves that range from pale green to pale yellow-green. They’re sweet and succulent with tongue-shaped leaves. Butter lettuce works well with gentle, vinaigrette based dressings. Popular varieties include Bibb and Boston.
Good old-fashioned iceberg lettuce is by far the most well known of this group, which is known for its tightly-balled heads which are high in water content and pack a powerful crunch that’s low in calories. Head lettuce is great for wraps or making an old school wedge salad with lots of blue cheese.
These varieties grow away from the main base stem in a loose way, as opposed to a tightly balled head, and they tend to have ruffled pliable leaves. Leaf lettuce is tender and broken up into bite-sized leaves for salads and sandwiches. This variety can be harvested leaf by leaf and sown into the ground every week for a continuous supply of greens throughout the growing season.
Also known as French Crisp Lettuce or Batavia Lettuce, it’s a summer tolerant lettuce that’s sweet, crispy, and versatile.
Shaped like an oak leaf, this variety comes in several colors; oak leaf lettuce has tender mild leaves that hold dressing well.
Plentiful in the summer with big crispy spines and broad leaves, varieties of the romaine family of lettuce are easy to cut or tear up for a delicious Caesar salad. Varieties of romaine lettuce can also be grilled. Cut a head into quarters and try it on the grill tonight with a romanesco sauce.
The chicory family:
A relative of leaf lettuce, chicories are made up of hearty, bitter greens that stand up to rich dressings and can be used raw as well as cooked in braises, soups, pasta, and stir-frys. They thrive in cooler months, and some even winter over, because they’re so hearty.
This oblong head has closely packed pale yellow, white satiny leaves. Endive is grown in the dark, to keep its delicate white color. Available year round. Makes a good scoop for dips, seafood salads such as ceviche, and appetizers. Slightly bitter taste.
Although it looks like a small magenta cabbage, radicchio is its own vegetable and prized for its bold color and flavor. It has closely overlapped red and white leaves. Radicchio can be eaten raw with hearty, creamy dressings because of its bitterness, or cooked where it becomes sweeter. Fabulous braised in some red wine and served with a steak.
Also known as curly endive, this frizzy, fun lettuce gives a lot of texture to any salad bowl. In a salade Lyonnaise, poached eggs and chunks of bacon are commonly served on frisée to hold the rich yolk and bacon fat perfectly.
Looks like a larger head of Bibb lettuce because of its pale green color, but stronger in flavor. Bitter, crunchy, and stands up well to braising and Italian soups with beans.
The brassica family:
Super peppery in flavor, arugula, also known as Rocket, is actually a slow growing herb. It can have spiky or rounded leaves that are softly textured. Sprinkle some raw arugula on a pizza fresh out of the oven, or make a pesto with walnuts in place of pine nuts and basil.
Mizuna is a variety of mild Asian greens in the Brassica family with veined, spiked, dark green leaves and a slightly peppery taste. Toss into pasta or a stir-fry just before serving. High in anti-oxidants and vitamin K.
Kale is a member of the cruciferous brassica family that can have a slightly bitter or even peppery bite when raw. There are various types of kale, from dinosaur (aka lacinato) to more tender baby kale, all with various textures, colors, and flavors. One thing for sure is this vegetable superfood is loaded with antioxidants and notably nutrients like fiber, vitamins A, pyridoxine, K and C.
A member of the mustard family, watercress grows in freshwater streams, but can also be cultivated. Its fresh peppery flavor is enjoyed raw, stems and all, or gently cooked. Watercress can be very sandy, so make sure to rinse it well.
Other types of leafy greens:
A very pungent, bold flavored bitter green, dandelion greens pack a nutrient punch that’s high in fiber, too. They can be boiled, braised, or eaten raw in salads if you can handle it! High in vitamins A, C, and K.
Also known as lamb’s lettuce, this lettuce grows in small dark green clusters and has a mild and sweet flavor. Rinse it carefully, because this delicate salad green is often sold with the root system still intact.
Also known as spring mix, this once exotic lettuce mix is now a mainstay at grocery stores everywhere. It’s made up of a wide variety of baby salad greens: bitter, sweet and crunchy. If you’re lucky, sometimes even herbs are sprinkled into this tasty mix, but you can always add your own.
Because it comes in such large amounts, I use up extra mesclun by sautéing a handful or two with olive oil and garlic and serving it on top of pre-made cheese ravioli for a quick satisfying meal.
A sweet little romaine-type lettuce with a sweet little name, this pale green oblong lettuce has a soft crunch and a delicate flavor.
Coming back into the limelight, purslane was often thought of as a noxious weed. What it is, however, is a succulent which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Purslane has a bright, lemony flavor that can be used interchangeably with spinach, and thick, almost juicy leaves.
High in nutritional value, spinach originated from Persia and is known around the world as a healthy, leafy green vegetable. Spinach comes in many leaf types, from crinkled to smooth, but all are enjoyed by eating raw or cooked in virtually any recipe. Use fresh baby spinach soon after buying for peak nutrition.
Buying & selection
Look for lettuce that is fresh, with un-creased, intact leaves. Pass up any brown or wilted leaves or slimy bases. While some lettuce may have a few outer leaves that are creased or ripped, the insides should be crisp looking and unblemished.
Wash before eating
Unless the greens have been pre-washed, always rinse your salad greens before eating to prevent possible foodborne illness associated with lettuce processing.
If you’d like to incorporate more fresh salads into your diet, it may be time to invest in a salad spinner (Amazon link), which uses a hand crank or button to spin the water out of fresh salad greens quickly and efficiently.
Fill the spinner bowl, or another large salad bowl, or clean sink basin with cold tap water, and add the greens, stirring gently to remove any sand or grit. Lift out and gently shake off excess water. Store the greens in the refrigerator under damp paper towels if using within a few hours.
If storing long term, salad greens need to be kept cool and relatively dry. Crowding, moisture, and heat are the enemies of your salad greens! The best way to store lettuce in the refrigerator is to line a plastic storage continuer with paper towels, place your greens loosely inside, and cover with paper towels before snapping on the lid. Stored this way, greens should last a week or more.
Cooking with lettuce
Hot or cold, lettuce almost never needs a lot of time to prepare, so it’s ideal for hot summers or weeknight eating.
- Lettuce preparation: Once you’ve washed the lettuce you’re going to use, it’s time to make something delicious. Tear by hand or cut your lettuce into bite-sized pieces. Softer lettuces do best when torn by hand, but if you’re using romaine, feel free to chop.
- How to properly dress a salad: When making a dressed salad, use a large bowl so you don’t crowd the lettuce. Also, when using a vinaigrette salad dressing, feel free to toss with your hands to distribute the liquid gently and evenly. And don’t forget to season with salt and pepper. A little salt, when sprinkled from above, can make a good salad spectacular.
Increasing your daily intake of vegetables and plants like lettuce is always a good idea for everyone, but those who are committed to Whole30, Paleo, and low carb diets can also enjoy lettuce greens, because all varieties are characteristically very low in carbs and calories, but high in vitamins, minerals, iron, fiber, and water. Generally speaking, the darker the leaf, the better it is for you.
Nutritional profile per 1 cup serving
The four most common types of green lettuce — green leaf, romaine, butterhead, and iceberg — have 26 to 34 calories in 200 grams, which is about a 1-cup serving of shredded lettuce. They deliver 2 grams of protein or about 4 percent of the recommended daily intake. Green leaf, butterhead, and iceberg have 2 grams of dietary fiber; romaine has 4 grams.