From arugula to radicchio and more, our guide to different leaves to use for salad.

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Whether salad is your go-to side dish for pasta or your favorite lunch, if you're bringing greens home from the farmers' market or grocery store, you want to keep them as fresh and vibrant as possible. Knowing how to pick and prep a big head of lettuce is essential, but sometimes you want a different texture or flavor for salad, so learning how to properly handle delicate greens and bold chicories is valuable, too.

peppery greens with meyer lemon dressing
Credit: Lennart Weibull

Greens like arugula, pea shoots, and baby lettuces—often found in spring mixes—are common at farmers' markets and grocery stores; these varieties can be peppery or sweet, and they are all considered to be quite tender. Chicories, like endive, radicchio, frisée, and escarole, are commonly referred to as bitter greens. Many are cold-weather plants by nature, but their season can stretch into spring. They're also widely available in markets and stores. They add a pleasant bitter flavor and hearty texture to salads when eaten raw.

For expert advice on how to select, wash, and store common salad components, we spoke with Cindy Mendoza, volunteer and special projects coordinator at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which operates the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and Mission Community Market in San Francisco. Mendoza also works the farmstand for Heirloom Organic Gardens, which carries a large variety of greens, so she has serious salad smarts.

What to Look for When Buying Salad Greens

Mendoza says the advice for buying greens is—helpfully—universal: For loose greens, look for leaves that are intact and "perky." If the leaves come in heads, look for tight heads with relatively undamaged outer leaves (you may have to peel a layer or two, and that's normal). For all, avoid leaves that are yellowed or browning, creased, torn, wilted or slimy. You want produce that is a healthy version of its true color—dark green for arugula or a deep red for radicchio, for example.

How—and When—to Wash Salad Greens

Mendoza advises not to wash loose greens until it's time to use them. When you're ready to eat them, plunge in cool water as many times as needed to remove any dirt. But be sure to treat them gently, says Mendoza: "Use a big bowl of water or your sink, and just kind of soak them; then lift them out, and put them in a salad spinner." If you don't have a salad spinner, you can transfer them to a large dry kitchen towel or paper towel and carefully roll them up. You don't want to crush them; you're looking to give them a good blotting to remove any moisture. Drying your greens thoroughly will help dressing cling, improving your salads.

The Best Way to Store Salad Greens

The objective is simple: Control air and moisture. Because you want to wait to wash, you need to store the greens in a container that will keep the greens breathable and dry until you're ready to prep. "At our market, we use compostable bags when selling, which are fine for just getting them home," says Mendoza, "but I would highly recommend moving them into a ziptop plastic bag or container or a reusable produce bag that can control the moisture. If there's moisture already on the greens, I would recommend either spinning them before you store them or putting a tea towel or paper towel in the container to absorb the moisture."

Mendoza says that if you want to meal prep or have leftover greens after cleaning, the gentle washing and thorough drying method will allow you to store most loose greens in a plastic bag or container in the fridge for up to a week. With heads like Belgian endive or radicchio, leave them whole and keep them dry until it's time to use them. But, as with the others, if you want to meal prep, you can wash and dry the leaves like loose greens and store them for a day or two in a sealed container in the fridge.

How to Prevent Waste

Mendoza's best advice is to buy only what you need. But if you end up with excess greens, think beyond salad. Greens that are a little past their prime can easily become a pesto—try arugula, baby kale or spinach. If chicories like radicchio or curly endive are starting to wilt, Mendoza says to just wilt them more: "Wilted-greens bruschetta is the easiest go-to if something doesn't make it into the salad." She loves dandelion greens with olive oil and garlic, but wilted mustard greens also make a great side dish.

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