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All About Lettuce

Guide to Buying and Using Lettuce Greens


Nothing compares with truly fresh salad greens. If you think you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a bag of pre-washed lettuce preserved with a blast of gas and a head of just-picked lettuce from a farmers market, try a side-by-side comparison. The delights of truly fresh lettuce are one of the greatest taste advantages to eating locally.

What Lettuce to Buy

Photo © Molly Watson

You can learn about specific varieties with this Guide to Lettuce Varieties, but remember that the best lettuce is whole-head or cutting lettuces that are harvested and sold as-is with as little processing as possible.

If you're tempted by the "pre-washed" or "triple-washed" claims on bagged lettuce, know that a 2005 test done in Minnesota the lettuce variety with the least bacteria was the plain, unwashed head of lettuce. Bagged lettuce is often rinsed in a chlorine wash and handled by many people before being sealed. This 2010 test by Consumer Reports found levels of bacteria in "pre-washed" and "triple-washed"bagged lettuce that most of us would want to avoid.

When to Buy Lettuce

Red Leaf Lettuce
Photo © Molly Watson
Lettuce in general is a cool weather crop that bolts and turns bitter when faced with harsh heat. We've become used to eating lettuce year-round because it can be cultivated somewhere all year, but local harvests are seasonal. Look for lettuce all year-round in the most temperate regions, in spring and fall in warmer areas, and in late spring through summer in cooler climates. Tougher, pleasantly bitter chicories are available in the fall and early winter. See your regional season guide for specifics.

What to Look For

Photo © Molly Watson
You want lettuce picked as recently as possible. Look for clean, fresh looking cut ends. You don't want anything that looks rusty, dried-out, or wilted. Crisp, bright looking leaves are good too. Remember, though, that some spotting or holes is common, especially in crops raised without sprays. Ask the grower if you have any questions about how the lettuce looks.

How to Store Lettuce

Lettuce Rolled In Towels
Photo © Molly Watson
As soon as possible after you bring lettuce home, throughly clean and dry it. Roll the leaves in several layers of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, seal in a plastic bag, and store in the hydrator ("crisper") of your refrigerator for up to 1 week. Lettuce stored this way stays crisp and wilt-free, since it is kept hydrated by the slightly moist towels, but basically dry by the towels soaking up excess moisture.

How to Use Lettuce

Photo © Molly Watson

Ages ago, lettuce was always cooked - mainly into soups. Now, of course, "lettuce" is almost synonymous with "salad" and the vast majority of lettuce grown and sold is eaten raw, tossed in salads or as the bed for another salad.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, maybe. There is an art to making a great salad: Use fresh greens, toss them lightly but thoroughly, make a great dressing.

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