From Crisp to Creamy, Get To Know Your Lettuce

lettuceLettuce seems like a bland, boring ingredient, but your produce market probably stocks at least ten different kinds, and that’s not even including the packages of mixed pre-washed leaves. Each type of lettuce has a unique flavor, texture, and even nutritional package. The best way to store them varies, too. So let’s get to know our lettuce!

  • LOOSELEAF lettuce includes red leaf and green leaf lettuce. These flowery, wide-open heads of lettuce have a fresh, mild flavor and medium-crisp texture that makes them equally ideal for salads or for layering into sandwiches and wraps. Red leaf lettuce contains anthocyanins, pigments that create that beautiful reddish hue and translate into antioxidants for us. The more deeply colorful your lettuce is (including green hues), the more antioxidants it contains. Another nutritional bonus: because each leaf in looseleaf lettuce is exposed to the elements, the plant has to develop a stronger immune system to fend off attacks by pests as well as shield itself from the sun. Again, that amped-up immune system translates into antioxidants on our plates. Loosely wrap the heads in paper towels and tuck them into produce bags before stashing them in the fridge for up to 3 days.
  • COS/ROMAINE lettuce is crisp and can stand up to dressing better than looseleaf varieties can. It’s the go-to lettuce for Caesar salad, plus it’s sturdy enough to be a “boat” that you can load up with tasty fillings. (If you’re looking to cut down on your bread intake, Romaine boats are the way to go!) Cos lettuce is also hardy enough to add to stir-frys at the last minute. You can even cut a head in half lengthwise and grill it! Another bonus? It lasts longer in the fridge than looseleaf—fresh Romaine can go a week and retain its crispness.
  • CRISPHEAD lettuce includes types like iceberg, where the head is tightly closed. This is the most long-lasting type of lettuce, but it’s also the least nutritious—the plant only has to protect its outermost layer, which is also the only layer exposed to sun. That said, if you want super-crispy lettuce to make into slaws, crisphead is your best bet. Shredded iceberg lettuce is also a refreshing topper for tacos, wraps, soups, and anything else that would benefit from a mild-flavored crunchy garnish.
  • BUTTERY lettuce includes soft-leafed varieties like Boston and Bibb lettuce. This creamy, rich-tasting lettuce makes an indulgent base for salads, although it’s best to dress them at the last possible second. To store tender buttery lettuce, float the head with its roots still attached in a bowl of cold water, tent it with a produce bag, and refrigerate it. Stored this way, buttery lettuce can keep for up to 5 days.
  • PEPPERY lettuce includes watercress, arugula, and members of the chicory family: radicchio, frisée, and endive. These varieties have sharp, pronounced flavors that work best when blended with other types of lettuce, although Belgian endive is generally grown without direct sunlight and consequently has a mild flavor and pale color. Endive is often used as a mini-boat for hors d’oeuvres, while the other varieties are included in prepackaged boxes of mixed greens. Peppery lettuce stores well—it lasts about a week refrigerated.
  • BABY VERSIONS of dark leafy greens are also often included in salad mixes, from baby spinach to baby kale. They’re more mild in flavor and easier to digest than their mature versions, and their not-tender-but-not-tough texture means they’re just as good in salads as they are in soups and stir-frys. They also last about a week refrigerated.

One last tip: no matter what kind of lettuce you’re using, if it’s limp (but not wilted!), you can revive it by letting the leaves soak in ice-cold water for a few minutes—as they rehydrate, their cell walls will stiffen and regain some of their crispness.

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