Real Food Encyclopedia | Lettuce

Lettuce — perhaps more than any other vegetable — represents the highs and the lows of gardening. Is anything more satisfying than seeing the bright neon green of Amish Deer Tongue Lettuce, for example, peeking up through the dirt in spring? Is there anything more soul-crushing than the discovery that your perfect head of Speckled Bibb has been nibbled to the ground by deer or rabbits? With so many different types of lettuce out there, the leafy vegetable can be fun to grow — and eat (just keep those critters away!).

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Fun Facts about Lettuce:

  • Romans first ate lettuce at the end of the meal to capitalize on its sleep-inducing affects; later, as the bitter quality in the sap was bred out of the varieties grown, lettuce was eaten at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite.
  • Lettuce cores were candied for a 17th Century French dish called gorge d’ange (“Angel’s throat”).
  • Heirloom lettuces include Red Leprechaun, Devil’s Ears, Canary Tongue, Mascara, Tennis Ball, Tango, Flame, Grandpa Admire’s and many other (interestingly named) varieties.

What to Look for When Buying Lettuce

Lettuce comes in many different varieties and colors. Loose-leaf lettuce is just that – leaves are cut loose (i.e., not bunched into a head), while Romaine and Crisphead lettuce varieties are (usually) bought as a head. You can find purple, red, bright green, dark green (and every other color of green), speckled and variegated varieties of lettuce at the market.

Look for leaves that are intact and not wilted, with no browning, discoloration or sliminess. (For head lettuces, the outermost leaves should be composted anyway, so a slight amount of browning or discoloration is OK).

Sustainability of Lettuce

In terms of global water footprint, lettuce ranks fairly low; however, conventional lettuce production relies upon monocropping (especially in California, where 90 percent of the leaf lettuce consumed in the US is grown) and irrigation from increasingly limited (and subsidized) sources.

In addition, conventionally grown lettuce has been implicated in several recent outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. The bulk of recent outbreaks have come from the increasingly popular “bagged lettuce” — lettuce that has been cut and “pre-washed,” usually in chlorinated water. The centralization of food processing in conventional (and so-called “Big Organic”) agriculture means that thousands and thousands of leaves of lettuce are processed in a single facility, so if one leaf is contaminated (from soil, animal waste or other contaminants), the entire batch of processed lettuce may become contaminated.

Pesticides and Lettuce

Lettuce ranks as a high number (15 of 48) on the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The EWG recommends buying organic due to the high pesticide load in conventionally grown lettuce.

Lettuce Seasonality

In most of the US, spring brings the most tender and sweetest lettuces. Lettuce is a cool weather plant — most varieties can’t tolerate extreme heat and tend to become bitter as the season wears on. (By summer, in all but the coolest climates you’ll be hard-pressed to find young lettuces at the market.) However, summer varieties of lettuce are now grown, and a second crop of most varietals can be planted in the early fall (prior to the first frost), extending the lettuce season dramatically.

Lettuce and Geography

Aside from its heat-intolerance, lettuce is easy-to-cultivate lettuce and can be grown just about anywhere, but China, the United States (especially California) and India lead the world in lettuce production.

There are many varieties of lettuce, all descended from the original wild lettuce, probably native to temperate Asia and Europe. Scholars speculate that lettuce was originally grown not for its delicious, tender leaves, but for either the sap (or “latex”) that is released from its stems when cut, or the oil found in the seeds. Lettuce latex is milky-white and has narcotic, sleep-inducing properties. Modern varietals have had this sedative trait mostly bred out, as the sap is extremely bitter. (Lettuce that bolts, or flowers, in the heat is usually bitter because the plant’s latex is more pronounced.) One of the first historical records of a culinary use for lettuce is from the Egyptian empire, where lettuce is depicted on a tombstone dating from 4500 BCE. The ancient Greeks wrote extensively about lettuce in their medicinal and culinary texts, and the Romans were big fans of the leafy green vegetable.

Eating Lettuce

Storing Lettuce

Romaine and iceberg can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week (or even more), but loose-leaf and Butterhead varieties deteriorate quickly and should be consumed within a couple of days of purchase. Very young, tender lettuces may not last more than a day in the refrigerator, and so should be eaten immediately. Keep lettuce away from fruit that emits ethylene gas (such as apples and bananas) because they will hasten its deterioration. And always, always wash your lettuce (even if, and maybe especially if, you buy “pre-washed” bagged greens) in cold water before eating.

Cooking with Less Waste

Cooking with Lettuce

Although recipes for cooked lettuce exist, including lettuce soup, creamed lettuce, braised lettuce (check out this recipe for braised peas and lettuce) and grilled Romaine, lettuce is most often consumed raw, in salads and as wrappers for various hot and cold savory fillings. In general, lettuce has a pleasingly sweet-bitter taste, and many varieties have a nice crunch. Crisphead types, like iceberg and Romaine, are mild in flavor and very crunchy — these varieties hold up to being sandwich toppers or being tossed with heavy or creamy dressings. Loose-leaved and Butterhead varieties tend to be softer and sweeter and may wilt under the weight of heavy dressings. Very fresh, young lettuces need only a tiny glug of extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon.

Lettuce Nutrition

The nutritional value of lettuce varies by variety — iceberg lettuce is far lower in nutrients than its cousins with dark green, red or speckled leaves. Lettuce is high in fiber and low in calories, and contains good amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, folate and iron.