Lettuce is a leafy green vegetable that we’re all familiar with. Many of us eat lettuce every day, whether it’s in a salad or included in a sandwich of some sort. It’s simply everyday fare. Yet, it’s a vegetable we can do more with than we think, and it often has more nutritional value than we give it credit for. I invite you to explore the possibilities of what you can do with lettuce and use more of it where you can. It’s more than just water packed in a green leaf! Check out the information below to learn more about this humble, noteworthy leafy vegetable!
Lettuce is an annual leaf vegetable of the aster family, Asteraceae. There are four varieties that are commonly grown: (1) asparagus lettuce with narrow leaves and a thick stem (i.e. celtuce, popular in China), (2) head or cabbage lettuce with leaves folded into a compact round head (i.e. iceberg), (3) leaf or curled lettuce, with leaves that are loose, curled and smooth-edged or oak-leaf in shape (i.e. green leaf), and (4) cos with smooth leaves that form a tall, oblong, loose head (i.e. romaine).
There are two classes of head lettuce: (1) Butterhead types (i.e. Boston and Bibb lettuces) with soft, large leaves that separate easily from the base of the stem, and (2) crispy types (i.e. iceberg lettuce), with crispy leaves that form hard, compact heads. Lettuces can have colors ranging from different shades of green to deep red and purple. Some newer varieties have variegated colors. The crisp head varieties are very popular in the United States.
Lettuce is by far the world’s most popular salad vegetable. It is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia. Lettuce was first cultivated by ancient Egyptians who transformed the plant from a weed with seeds used to produce oil, to a food grown for its leaves and seeds. The plant was introduced to Greeks and Romans, who gave it the name “lactuca” where the name “lettuce” came from. The plants eventually made their way around the world, where different varieties were eventually developed and cultivated, especially in Holland. People in most countries eat lettuce raw, whereas celtuce lettuce is often cooked in China. Most lettuce eaten in the United States is grown in California.
Nutrition and Health Benefits of Lettuce
Lettuce is one food you can eat without guilt, with only 11 to 20 calories in 2 cups, depending upon the variety. It has extremely little fat, little carbohydrate and protein. However, the nutrient content starts to pick up with fiber, having about 2 grams in 2 cups, depending upon the variety. When comparing nutrient value of assorted types of lettuce, romaine lettuce often tops the list with higher levels of specific vitamins and minerals, while iceberg is often toward the bottom. Nevertheless, iceberg lettuce does have nutritional value.
Romaine is the lettuce to choose when shopping for the most nutrient-dense lettuce. It supplies good amounts of Vitamin A (carotenoids), Vitamin K, folate, molybdenum, dietary fiber, manganese, potassium, biotin, Vitamin B1, iron, copper, Vitamin C, Vitamin B2, omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B6, phosphorus, chromium, magnesium, calcium, and pantothenic acid. Despite its high water and low calorie content, that’s a lot to be said for romaine lettuce!
Heart Health. Considering the wide range of nutrients provided by romaine lettuce, this lettuce in particular, can be considered a heart-healthy food. The Vitamin C and beta-carotene work together to help prevent oxidation of cholesterol, which would cause it to become sticky and cling to arterial walls forming plaque. The fiber in romaine lettuce helps to remove bile from the body, forcing the production of more bile. This in turn, lowers blood cholesterol. The folate in romaine helps to keep the amino acid homocysteine in check, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, the potassium in romaine helps to keep blood pressure in check. There’s plenty of reason to opt for romaine lettuce when you can!
How to Select Lettuce
No matter what type of lettuce you’re buying, you want your lettuce to be as fresh as possible. Look for brightly colored leaves that appear crisp, not wilted, and are free of blemishes. If possible, choose heads with stems that are not browning from the base.
How to Store Lettuce
To stay crisp and fresh, lettuce needs moisture and air. Here are the steps to keeping lettuce fresh and crisp, according to https://thespruceeats.com:
Loose Leaf Lettuce. Remove any damaged leaves, then wash your lettuce. Dry it in a salad spinner or on paper towels. Wrap the lettuce in dry paper towels or a clean cloth and place it in a rigid storage container with a lid. The towel will absorb any excess water while helping to maintain a humid environment. It’s helpful to store the washed lettuce in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for proper temperature during storage. If not possible, store them toward the bottom of the refrigerator and try to keep the container from resting against the back of the refrigerator where the lettuce might freeze. Replace the paper towel or cloth when it feels wet. Check the lettuce every day or two and remove any leaves that are not at their best. Use loose leaf lettuce within 7 to 10 days for best quality.
Head Lettuce (Unwashed). Remove any outer leaves that are wilted or damaged. Leave the heads intact and do not wash them until you are ready to use the lettuce. Store the head of lettuce wrapped in paper towels or a clean cloth in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Replace the towels when they appear wet. Head lettuce can last from one to three weeks when stored like this. If the outer leaves start to look bad, remove and discard them until you reach inner leaves that look good. Use them as soon as possible.
Storing Washed and Cut Lettuce. Wash and spin dry cut lettuce. If you do not have a salad spinner, allow the lettuce to air dry on paper towels or a clean cloth towel. Wrap your washed/dried lettuce in a dry paper or cloth towel and place it in a rigid covered container. A plastic bag may be used, but they may keep better in a covered container since that will protect them from getting bumped and bruised. Store it in the crisper drawer if possible, for optimal temperature. Replace the towel if it gets wet, and remove any damaged/aging leaves for optimal storage life.
Tips for Lettuce Storage. (1) Lettuce bruises or gets damaged easily. So, try not to shove other foods or containers against your lettuce in the refrigerator. That’s why storing lettuce in a container can be helpful. (2) Try not to push your lettuce to the back of the refrigerator, where it might freeze. If this happens, it will not be good for salads, as freezing lettuce makes it mushy. (3) If you’re slow to eat your lettuce, choose romaine or iceberg, which seem to keep the longest.
Reviving Wilted Lettuce. If your lettuce starts to wilt, revive it by placing it in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes before you use it. Dry the soaked lettuce, then use it as planned.
When to Discard Lettuce. If your lettuce starts to look slimy, brown, moldy, and/or develops a bad odor, it’s time to toss it out.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Lettuce
* Add lettuce of any type to your sandwiches, burgers, or wraps for added crunch, flavor and a little nutrient boost.
* Just about everything goes with lettuce. When making a meal salad, get creative! Add a variety of your favorite foods from different categories…proteins, fruits, other vegetables, grains, dairy and non-dairy. Add your favorite dressing and enjoy! Change it up as often as you can for variety and nutrient balance.
* Enjoy a lettuce wrap with your favorite foods. Use large lettuce leaves, and double or triple them for strength if needed. Fill with your favorite sandwich, taco or burrito filling, wrap and enjoy!
* Years ago, lettuce was always cooked…mostly in soups. If you’re really looking for something different to try, add some lettuce to a vegetable soup at the end of cooking! The heat will wilt the lettuce while it still maintains some of its crunch. The same thing can be done with arugula and spinach.
* If you’re concerned about bacteria or other microbes on your food, opt for whole heads of lettuce (those with leaves still attached to the base). Researchers have found that whole heads of lettuce had FAR less bacteria on them than the cut, bagged varieties. This is true, even for those labeled as being “triple washed” and “ready to eat.”
* Lettuce can bruise easily. When washing/cutting lettuce in advance to be stored in the refrigerator, either tear the lettuce or cut it with a plastic lettuce knife (rather than a metal knife). Cutting lettuce in advance with a metal knife can bruise the lettuce, causing brown edges on the leaves where it was cut. This is not a problem if you will be eating your lettuce right away, but may be noticeable for stored prepared lettuce.
* When storing lettuce, keep it away from ethylene-producing fruit, which would cause the lettuce to age prematurely. Such fruit includes apples, bananas, tomatoes, avocados, kiwi fruit, and cantaloupe. [Note that this is not an all-inclusive list.]
* Lettuce contains a lot of water. Why not add some to your next smoothie?
* Try adding some shredded crisp lettuce to your next vegetable stir-fry!
* Next time you grill something, take a head of lettuce like iceberg or radicchio, slice it in half through the core, and grill it, cut side down. It will have grill marks, and a hint of smokiness what will add an interesting flavor twist to your next salad.
* When you’re braising something, try adding some crispy romaine along with or instead of cabbage. Lettuce absorbs other flavors readily, so this should enhance the flavor of your dish.
* When you want a quick snack, top some crispy lettuce leaves with your favorite cracker topping, like nut butter and fruit, hummus, egg salad, chickpea salad, refried beans, cheese, or anything like that.
*Are you wondering what those brown spots toward the base of lettuce stems are and if it’s safe to eat? Check out my video about lettuce rust…what it is, if it’s safe, and how to prevent it… https://youtu.be/BfCfn1iCxDo
Herbs/Spices That Go Well with Lettuce
Basil, capers, cayenne, chervil, cilantro, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, lovage, mint, mustard, parsley, pepper (black, white), salt, tarragon, thyme
Foods That Go Well with Lettuce
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans, beef, cashews, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, seafood, seeds (i.e. pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), tahini, tempeh, tofu, turkey, walnuts
Vegetables: Arugula, beets, bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, celery, celery root, chayote, chiles, chives, cucumbers, fennel, greens (baby and other salad greens), jicama, leeks, mushrooms, nori, onions, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radicchio, radishes, scallions, shallots, sprouts, squash (summer and winter), sugar snap peas, tomatoes, watercress
Fruits: Apples, avocados, citrus fruits (lemons, lime, grapefruit, oranges, tangerines), cranberries (dried), mangoes, olives, pears, pomegranates, persimmons, raisins
Grains and Grain Products: Bulgur, corn, corn chips, corn tortillas, croutons, quinoa, rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Buttermilk, cheese (dairy and nondairy), crème fraiche, yogurt
Other Foods: Honey, mayonnaise, miso, oil, soy sauce, tamari, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce
Lettuce has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Lettuce wraps, salads, sandwiches, soups
Suggested Flavor or Food Combos Using Lettuce
Use lettuce with any of the following combinations…
Almonds + Avocado + Carrots + Smoked Tofu + Tomatoes
Almonds + Jicama + Orange
Apples + Celery + Lime + Raisins + Walnuts
Avocado + Grapefruit + Pecans + Radicchio
Carrots + Cucumbers + Dill + Feta Cheese
Chickpeas + Cucumbers + Feta Cheese + Olives + Red Onions + Tomatoes
Dill + Garlic + Lemon + Scallions
Dijon Mustard + Lemon + Olive Oil + Scallions
Fennel + Grapefruit
Figs + Goat Cheese + Tarragon
Gorgonzola Cheese + Hazelnuts + Lemon + Olives
Pears + Sherry Vinegar + Walnuts
Stir-Fry Lettuce https://www.thespruceeats.com/stir-fry-lettuce-recipe-695327
Thai Basil Chicken Lettuce Wraps https://www.thespruceeats.com/thai-basil-chicken-lettuce-wraps-3217221
Classic Wedge Salad https://www.thespruceeats.com/classic-wedge-salad-4688322
Stir-Fried Garlic Lettuce (vegan) https://www.theperfectpantry.com/2009/10/shao-hsing-wine-recipe-stirfried-garlic-lettuce.html
Strawberry, Blueberry & Greens Salad with Honey Vinaigrette https://www.thekitchenismyplayground.com/2015/05/strawberry-blueberry-greens-salad-with.html
Parmesan Crusted Romaine and Chicken https://sweetphi.com/parmesan-crusted-romaine-chicken-eating-better-health-key/
Lettuce Salad with Tomato and Cucumber https://ifoodreal.com/lettuce-salad/
38 Recipes using Salad Greens https://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/slideshow/lettuce-recipes
Roasted Lettuce, Radicchio, and Endive https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/246655/roasted-lettuce-radicchio-and-endive/?internalSource=staff%20pick&referringId=16350&referringContentType=Recipe%20Hub&clickId=cardslot%201
Holiday Lettuce Salad https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/holiday-lettuce-salad/
40 Lettuce Recipes You Can Get Excited About https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/lettuce-recipes/
Cranberry Almond Lettuce Salad https://www.food.com/recipe/cranberry-almond-lettuce-salad-105318
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.