Lettuce - Salad staple do's and don'ts

You know this isn’t your average food blog if you are reading a post about lettuce. I’m not talking about obscure and expensive types with names you cannot pronounce.  This is about “regular” lettuce you can find in the produce aisle of any decent grocery store - how to buy it, how to store it, and what to do if you have kept it a bit too long.  This may not sound like an exciting topic, but if you make and eat salad, which I hope you do, then lettuce do’s and don’ts are essential.

lettuce, fresh vegetable, salad, clean vegetable

Lettuce may not be a sexy vegetable, but it's a building block for amazing salads.

If you are tempted to buy cut up lettuce in bags, I have three word for you – don’t do it!  The only advantage of the bagged stuff is the dubious savings of the few minutes that it takes to wash fresh lettuce.  But for that time saved you get food that is more expensive and less appetizing, with more waste (wilted, brown and otherwise unappetizing pieces), packaging that fouls the environment, and the greater possibility of bacterial contamination than fresh lettuce.  Now I ask you - is that a good deal?  

Lettuce varieties abound, especially this time of year.  Iceberg, romaine, leaf and Boston or butter are the main types sold in U.S. grocery stores.  I do not know when or where I first heard it, but have always followed the motto that the darker the leaf, the healthier the lettuce.  It turns out that is right.  In other words, iceberg lettuce is the least healthy choice, while romaine (as long as the leaves are deep green and not sickly white), leafy and Boston/butter have more nutrients.

lettuce, vegetable, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, fresh, salad

I love to combine red and green leafy lettuce, sometimes with Boston or butter lettuce too.

Lettuce should be refrigerated, preferably in a vegetable bin if your refrigerator has one. Hint – leafy vegetables like lettuce last longest if they are kept in a cool, humid environment.  (In some groceries, you may notice that they spray lettuce with water every so often to keep it fresh.)  Fruits like strawberries, apples and oranges need lower humidity.   It’s better to keep the fruits and vegetables in separate refrigerator drawers if possible, and to set the vegetable drawer for higher humidity than the fruit drawer. 

To clean lettuce, simply take the leaves you will use off the core or stem, run them under cold water and dry them.  You may need to discard a few outer leaves.  If you like salad, consider investing about $20 in a salad spinner.  I love mine.

lettuce, salad, salad spinner

This salad spinner was a cast-off from my mom. I've had it for at least 5 years, maybe 10.

But a strainer or colander works fine, if you don’t have a spinner. So does rinsing the leaves in a bowl, shaking them and rolling them dry in kitchen or paper towel. 

If your lettuce gets wilted, don’t despair.  Try reviving it by soaking the leaves in a bowl of cold water with a few ice cubes for 5 or 10 minutes, draining the water and drying them.  It worked like a charm for me last night when I discovered that my lettuce was a bit past its prime.  And if you’ve cleaned more than you can eat at one meal, store it with a paper towel in a clean, closed plastic container.  Clean lettuce will last that way for another day or two, maybe even three. 

We’ll get to salad ideas in a future post. For now, think about being adventurous with lettuce. Try a type you haven’t had before or combine different types in a big salad.  And if you don’t normally eat salad – spring is a wonderful time to start.

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