From Romaine to Iceberg to Bibb and Red Leaf, Consider This Your Ultimate Guide to Grocery Store Lettuce
Here's what you need to know about shopping for, storing, and using the head lettuces available in supermarkets.
Eating healthy can be difficult enough as is, so we're here to demystify the most common head lettuce varieties you'll find at the supermarket. No more puzzling over which is the best lettuce for your salad or if that butterhead will last till you need it. From the ever popular iceberg and romaine to less well known but readily available leaf lettuce, we're sharing tips on shopping for, storing, and using the most common varieties of greens you'll find in the produce section at your supermarket. With this information, you'll know exactly what to look for on your next trip to the grocery store in order to level up your salad game.
It's most famous as the Caesar salad go-to, but this type of lettuce can do far more than just that. Romaine has sturdy, long leaves that are typically chopped, but they can be left whole and quickly thrown on the grill for a summer-y, smoky spin on the classic salad. Romaine is crispy and has a mild, sweet flavor that doesn't overpower other ingredients in your recipe (which is what makes it such a great vehicle for Caesar dressing). When shopping, you'll want to look for tight bunches that boast fresh-looking leaves. Once you bring romaine home, rinse and thoroughly dry it, then store it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to one week. Don't cut it until you plan on using it.
In the U.S., iceberg lettuce reigns supreme as the most popular variety, thanks to its wide availability, which can be attributed to its heartiness and superior shipping capabilities. It's super crisp and quite mild in flavor, and it makes for a crunchy wedge salad or lettuce wrap. If you're looking for a superfood salad, you will want to steer clear of iceberg; while it's low in calories like all lettuces, it contains mostly water and is not nearly as nutrient-dense as other varieties (the deeper the color, the richer in nutrients typically). When shopping for iceberg, look for heads that are large, feel heavy for their size, and have tight leaves, recommends the Produce for Better Health Foundation. You can also gently pull an outer leaf back to look for any imperfections. You should rinse and dry your iceberg lettuce upon returning home, then refrigerate it in a plastic bag for up to one week. Keep the head whole until you plan on using it, as it will spoil faster once chopped.
Softer, tender, and less crisp than other lettuce varieties, butterhead lettuces are also known as bibb or Boston. In stores, they are often sold in plastic containers to help protect the delicate leaves. Unlike romaine and iceberg that have relatively tight and rigid leaves surrounding a core, butterhead lettuce leaves are looser and smaller. These leaves make for great appetizer-size lettuce wraps (feel free to double layer the lettuce for some extra rigidity, if desired, depending on how heavy your filling is). You can also simply tear the leaves for a rustic-yet-elegant salad that's full of vitamins and minerals. For a fun twist come summer, we like to grill a butterhead lettuce—just be sure to balance the char's smokiness with a creamy, cooling dressing. When shopping, look for leaves that look healthy and not wilted. After washing and thoroughly drying the lettuce, you can store it for up to five days in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Refrain from chopping or tearing the leaves until you plan on preparing it.
Batavia is in the "crisphead" group of lettuces and is similar to iceberg, but the leaves are looser, smaller, and a bit more flavorful. It is crisp like romaine but has a sweet flavor. This lettuce's color can range from green to burgundy (and can even be mixed), and some heads may be tighter or looser depending on the exact variety. According to Colorado State University Extension, it's more popular in Europe (you may see it labeled "French Batavia") than in the U.S., but it can be found at farmers' markets and may be grown at home. Wash a Batavia lettuce and dry it thoroughly, then store it in a bag in the refrigerator for about a week. As with other types of lettuce, it's best to store it whole until you plan on preparing it.
If you're determined to eat the rainbow (and impress your nutritionist!), be on the lookout for loose leaf lettuces. These lettuces grow large heads that contain loose leaves, and there are reddish-purple and green varieties, both of which make for a great salad (or add great crunch and color to a sandwich) and offer many nutritional and culinary qualities. The red/purple-hued lettuces are rich in antioxidants, offering extra health benefits to those who consume them. While the red leaf lettuce tends to have a more robust, earthy flavor, the green variety is on the milder side. Both offer a nice crunch but are still somewhat soft in texture. When shopping, look for closely-bunched heads with crisp leaves and no brown edges. After washing and drying, you can store the lettuce in the fridge for up to a week in a plastic bag, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Note that red leaf lettuces tend to have a shorter shelf life than green leaf or head lettuce varieties, so eat those first. Mix red leaf lettuce with other, milder or bitter lettuces to make a stunning, colorful salad with complex, balanced flavor and diverse textures. Don't forget that you can also cook your lettuce; it braises beautifully.