Produce Spotlight: The Ultimate Guide to Lettuce
In today’s produce spotlight, we will be covering everything you need to know about Lettuce. This vegetable is super versatile and can create a quick, fresh side or entrée salad. Check out this article for tips on growing, harvesting and storing lettuce in the summer and beyond. Also, I have asked a Registered Dietitian questions about the nutrition of lettuce, from carb content to bloating concerns.
Table of Contents
- Lettuce Origin and Growing Information
- Is there a known origin of lettuce?
- What is the difference between salad greens, looseleaf and head lettuce?
- How is lettuce harvested?
- What is Stem Lettuce?
- Why are some varieties of lettuce loose, like Boston Lettuce, while others are tight like Romaine? Are there different categories?
- When I grow lettuce at home, sometimes it is bitter or doesn’t head properly. Why?
- When is lettuce in season?
- Can it tolerate shade or frost?
- Cooking and Preparing Lettuce
- Nutrition of Lettuce
- Lettuce Recipes
Lettuce Origin and Growing Information
Is there a known origin of lettuce?
Lettuce is thought to have originated in Egypt. There are depictions of, Min, the god of fertility with beds of lettuce. Ancient Egyptian lettuce was tall, straight stalks, larger than modern lettuce.
What is the difference between salad greens, looseleaf and head lettuce?
Salad greens, looseleaf lettuce and head lettuce can all be used to make salad, but they are slightly different. Head lettuce refers to lettuce that grows in a bunch, such as iceberg, romaine, green leaf or butterhead varieties. Looseleaf, as the name implies does not form a head and is often harvested young for salad mixes. Salad greens includes baby lettuces but also include greens that are not considered lettuce, such as arugula, chicory, mustard, mizuna and frisée. Mesclun mix and salad green seeds are almost always sold mixed together, and are sewn close together with the intention of harvesting while the greens are very young. Head lettuce plants are grown further apart so they have enough space to form a head.
How is lettuce harvested?
Lettuce can be harvested several times without killing the plant. Removing the outer layers and leaving the center will allow the plant to regrow for another harvest. To harvest an entire head of lettuce, cut one inch above the dirt. Loose varieties of lettuce can be harvested by cutting the leaves at their base with sharp kitchen shears. They can be regrown one to three more times times until they become bitter.
Home grown lettuce can be very dirty, especially after a rain or in the areas close to the root in between the leaves. Lettuce should be washed in cold water and spun dry dry before use.
What is Stem Lettuce?
Stem lettuce is a Chinese variety of lettuce also called “celtuce.” It has leaves like traditional lettuce, but its stalk makes it unique. It looks similar to asparagus and has a crisp, mild and nutty taste. This stalk can be used for stir-fries or pickling. It can also be spiralized for a refreshing summer salad. Celtuce is available in many Chinese markets across the US and the seeds are readily available at most garden stores.
Why are some varieties of lettuce loose, like Boston Lettuce, while others are tight like Romaine? Are there different categories?
The head and the heart of the lettuce plant are what keep leaves tightly bunched. This is common for tight lettuce varieties like Romaine or Cos. Looseleaf styles of lettuce, like Boston Lettuce or Butterhead Lettuce, form no head or heart. They are different categories and they have different growing patterns. Looseleaf varieties can grow closer together and are more heat resistant than tightly bunched lettuce.
When I grow lettuce at home, sometimes it is bitter or doesn’t head properly. Why?
Bitterness is a common problem for gardeners and farmers alike, and has many causes. High temperatures signal the lettuce to bolt or create stalks and flowers more quickly than normal, which results in bitterness and looser bunches. There is no solution to high temperatures, but planting your lettuce early in the season may slow maturation. Another reason for bitterness can be too little water. Large, flat leaves are sweeter in taste due to their high water content. Staying ahead of watering your plants may keep them sweeter and crisper when harvested. High nutrient content makes lettuce bitterer. For example, greens like arugula and dandelion greens have stronger tastes than less nutrient-dense greens, such as iceberg or butterhead lettuce.
When is lettuce in season?
Lettuce is in season from late spring until early fall. Lettuce grows best in temperatures ranging from 45 to 75 degrees. In colder climates, gardeners and farms may grow lettuce in hoop houses in late winter.
Can it tolerate shade or frost?
Lettuce can tolerate partial shade but prefers full sun. Planting plans that account for a little shaded protection from taller vegetables can help prevent lettuces from bolting. It can also tolerate a light frost; however, extended cold periods can damage or kill the plant.
Cooking and Preparing Lettuce
How do you Cut lettuce?
Lettuce can be chopped or torn, depending on the desired leaf size. In many restaurants in which I have cooked, the lettuce is cut with a knife. Now when I process lettuce at home after I bring it in from the garden, CSA or market, I almost always cut it before storing in resealable plastic bags. I find this is really helpful for making quick salads for dinner and lunch and is one less obstacle to overcome in making the choice to have more veggies in our diet. If the lettuce is needed to last more than five days, it should not be cut first, as the cuts will dry out and darken.
To cut the lettuce:
- Cut head in half lengthwise all the way through the root end.
- Leaving the root end intact, slice several lengthwise cuts through the leaves.
- Cut across the head to make roughly square bite-size pieces of lettuce, stopping just before the root end/core.
To Wash Lettuce
- Fill salad spinner with with cold tap water.
- Meanwhile, if planning to cut lettuce, do so before washing.
- Fill the basket of the salad spinner with lettuce (do not over-pack.)
- Lower the basket into the water.
- Gently agitate the lettuce.
- Lift the basket out of the water.
- Drain away the water and rinse out any grit from the bottom of the spinner.
- Fill the spinner again, and lower the greens into the water. Repeat gentle agitation and draining until there is no signs of dirt, bugs or grit.
- Spin dry.
Can Lettuce be cooked?
Lettuce is typically served raw, but it can definitely be cooked! A popular way to cook lettuce is to briefly char it on a grill. Doing this with tightly bunched varieties, such as romaine. Try it with this simple egg-free Caesar dressing! It won’t disappoint! Lettuce can also be added to recipes at the very end as you would baby spinach, chard greens or bok choy greens.
Can lettuce be frozen?
I do not recommend freezing lettuce. Like radishes, lettuce has a very high water content held within the cellulose cell structure. When the lettuce is frozen the water in the cells expands, and bursts the cell structure. When thawed the lettuce will be completely limp and no longer crunchy.
If you want to freeze anyway, you can do so with the intent of using the lettuce as you would for cooked spinach such as in stir-fries and soups. Adding frozen and thawed lettuce to broth or sauce can give your dishes an Asian flair. To freeze the lettuce cut into desired sized pieces, spread out on a baking sheet and freeze. Once solid, transfer to resealable freezer bag. Note: work quickly as it will thaw quickly, and the leaves will then stick together.
What are the best uses for the various types of lettuce?
Though many people think of all lettuce belonging in a bowl with dressing, it is a pretty versatile vegetable. Lettuce and salad greens come in many different shapes, sizes, colors and tastes.
Romaine lettuce can be used for a crispy Caesar salad, but also double as a bread substitute for a low carb or gluten free alternative. Butterhead lettuce also works well as a wrap for salads, pasta or meats. Both Romaine and Butterhead are great on a burger or sandwich to provide cool crunchy texture contrast.
Iceberg lettuce is usually the least expensive and the least nutrient-dense of the lettuce varieties. Due to its crunchy texture, it is great for wedge salads, tacos or subs.
Arugula is a popular green in Italian and Mediterranean cooking. It has a strong spicy taste that can compliment a bunch of dishes. It can be used for a stronger-tasting salad, to top pizza or even to pair with strong cheeses like Parmesan or blue. Another less popular slightly bitter green is called Chicory. This can add some kick to a traditional salad, or can be cooked with spicy dishes or stir-fries. A relative of Chicory, called Escarole, has broad, flat leaves and loves to be sautéed with garlic then tossed with pasta, sausage, sage and white beans.
Radicchio and Endive are two strongly bitter greens that look similar to cabbage. Both can be chopped for coleslaw or salad, and are especially delicious with blue cheese and walnuts. I love adding rachicchio to caesar salad. To add some smokiness, half the heads and grill for 1-2 minutes until char marks are present.
Mesclun and Mache are two small leaved and fragile kinds of lettuce. The mild taste of mache is best with more subtle flavor combinations. It is also known as lamb’s lettuce and is great in the early spring paired with citrus and lamb. Mesculn mixes vary widely, but are often quite spicy if they include mustard and/or arugula. In my garden I often opt for the spicier mesclun mixes. They knock my socks off and pair well with my favorite sesame dressing.
Nutrition of Lettuce
What are the health benefits of lettuce?
How many carbs/ nutritional values are in lettuce?
Does lettuce cause gas or constipation?
Which lettuce is good/best for you?
All lettuce is good for you! I don’t like to label varieties of lettuce as “good” or “bad”, but rather that some have more nutrition bang for your buck. Let color be your guide. The darker the leaves, the more nutrient-rich the lettuce.
Is iceberg lettuce healthy?
A Special Thank you to Half Pint Farm for allowing me to take photographs in their beautiful Burlington Vermont farm fields!
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Happy Cooking! ~Katie