Latin name: Lactuca sativa
Uses: vegetable (leaf and stem)
What is lettuce?
Lettuce is a leafy green related to chicory. Through millennia of selective breeding, humans have taken what was originally a bitter dandelion and created hundreds of varieties of mild lettuces. If you prefer the old-fashioned bitter iteration, you can always head toward lettuce’s aster-family cousins: radicchio, chicory, escarole, and endive. But tenderhearts always come back to lettuce.
Why is lettuce healthy?
Lettuce has been lately demoted in favor of darker-pigmented greens. But the body loves variety, and lettuce provides a good source of fiber and micronutrients. Due to its high water content, it is a perfect choice to hydrate and replace lost electrolytes. Throw out your sports drink and have a salad!
What does lettuce taste like?
Different lettuces have different qualities, ranging from the mild and crisp iceberg through summer crisp or Batavian types, butterheads (aka Boston or bibb) and leaf lettuces (green leaf, red leaf, oakleaf) to romaine or cos varieties’ more vegetal, robust flavor and texture. Celtuce, or stem lettuce, is earthy and nutty, with a dense and crunchy stem.
How do I use lettuce?
The first place we begin with lettuce is always salads, but don’t be afraid to riff on the classics. Make an iceberg wedge, but add crisp-fried onions or mushrooms instead of bacon. Use toasted pita or tortillas instead of croutons. Sauté hearts of Romaine before adding marinated olives, soft-cooked egg, turned baby potatoes, and crispy haricot verts for a warm version of salade Niçoise.
In fact, for cooking, romaine is generally your best bet. Chargrill it, then hit with your favorite acid (fresh lemon or lime juice) and salty, crumbled cheese (ricotta salata, feta, or cotija). Romaine and iceberg are both delicious stir-fried and braised, too. Chinese stir-fried lettuce with garlic sauce or chestnuts and Shaoxing wine are also great ways to use up lettuce slightly past its prime for salads. Celtuce (common in Chinese cooking) has a wonderfully nutty flavor and adds crispness and dimension to stir-fries and salads. Just peel it and cut into matchsticks. Korean lettuce wraps (ssam) traditionally use barbecued pork or beef, but soy curls or tofu are just as delicious if you have good ssamjang and kimchi.
What does lettuce pair well with?
Because of its mild flavor, lettuce likes assertive companions like vinaigrette or sharp cheese. Its delicate texture invites contrasts like crunchy croutons or radishes.
Where does lettuce grow?
Ancient Egyptians were the first to farm lettuce, but it was for the oil in the seeds, not the leaves. As with many crops, China leads world production, but consumes most of it. Additionally, the Chinese created celtuce and still grow pretty much all of it. Spain and the United States are the top exporters.
How to buy lettuce:
The fresher the better! Look for perky heads and leaves without any slimy spots. Just-picked lettuce will last a week bagged in your fridge.
Fun lettuce fact:
Prior to the reign of Emperor Domitian in the 1st century BCE, lettuce was mostly cooked before dressing in oil and vinegar. Domitian loved throwing dinner parties and was purportedly the first to serve a raw lettuce salad at the beginning of his meals. Lettuce salads soon caught on among wealthy ancient Roman urbanites.