The essential salad ingredient, lettuce is packed with chlorophyll, which gives it a fresh green, grassy taste. The most perishable of vegetables, it is at its best when raw.
This crisp, slightly bitter lettuce is an old standby—and the go-to leaf for Caesar salads. Its elongated, narrow leaves have a prominent rib that gives a good crunch. Of all lettuces, romaine has the highest levels of vitamin C; it is also a good source of fiber, potassium, and folate. Look for dark green outer leaves that lighten toward the center.
Members of the butterhead family, these delicate lettuces grow in loose, pale green to pale yellow heads. Their cup-shaped leaves make pretty beds for tuna, crab, or other salads. Both are good sources of vitamin A, potassium, and folate. Bibb heads tend to be smaller and darker, with a sweeter taste. Both varieties require gentle handling and have a short shelf life; use them within 2 days.
Iceberg is the best-selling lettuce in America. It has little flavor or nutritional value but lots of cool crunch and staying power in the fridge. Look for pale green, almost whitish heads that are tightly packed and feel heavy for their size. A classic preparation: quarter a crisp, chilled head of iceberg and serve topped with blue cheese dressing.
These loose-leaved lettuces grow in large, open heads with a profusion of ruffly, deeply colored fronds; look for crisp leaves with no brown edges. Leaf lettuces have more flavor than head lettuces, and red leaf adds a vibrant splash of bronzy red to a salad. Red is high in vitamin A and other antioxidants. Both red and green are good sources of folate.
Escarole has a slightly bitter bite. Its broad, sturdy leaves are good in salads when young and tender; but tougher, more mature specimens are best tossed into soups and stews. Escarole is a good source of vitamins A and C.
Though the names chicory and frisée are sometimes used interchangeably, frisée generally refers to a cross between chicory and greenleaf lettuce that is less bitter than chicory. Chicory has slender, spiky leaves with a bitter, peppery taste. Frisée has attractive loose, feathery yellow-white to green fronds. Both are good sources of vitamins A and C.
Bitter radicchio is an Italian lettuce grown in the United States only since 1988. It has brilliant burgundy-tipped leaves with bright white ribs. It grows either in tight, cabbagelike heads or compact, elongated ones with tapered leaves and a white bulblike base; browning at the base is normal, but avoid spongy heads. Though it lacks chlorophyll common in other lettuces, radicchio is a good source of vitamin C and iron. Whole leaves can be used to serve hors d’oeuvres or hold salads like tuna or chicken; they also stand up well to cooking.
This term is used to refer to any mix of loose, tender baby lettuce leaves. Long common in France, mesclun was introduced in the United States just a few decades ago and can now be found sold in bulk or in prepackaged bags. The mix (along with its nutrients) varies according to season and grower but typically contains loose-leaved lettuces, frisée, and radicchio.
How to Store Lettuce
Refrigerate in a loosely closed plastic bag; do not seal tightly, as this can cause the leaves to absorb excess moisture and become soggy. If roots are attached, wrap them in a damp paper towel before placing the lettuce in the bag. Lettuce is delicate and should be eaten within 5 days (iceberg lasts up to 2 weeks); discard any leaves that are wilted or slimy. Do not separate the leaves from the head or wash until just before using. For washed and packaged lettuce, follow the expiration date, no matter how fresh the leaves appear, since bacteria can develop.
How to Prepare Lettuce
To toss a picture-perfect salad, first tear (don’t cut) leaves from the core, then clean and dry them well. The best way to do this is with a salad spinner. Fill it with cold water, add greens to the basket, and swish. Lift out greens, dump the water, and repeat until the water is grit-free. Spin the greens until thoroughly dry (in batches, if necessary). Excess moisture dilutes the dressing. Oil can cause greens to wilt, so dress them just before serving with only enough dressing to nicely coat the leaves without pooling in the bottom of the bowl.
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