You add lettuce to sandwiches and sides every day, but staring down the options at the salad bar may have you wondering if one type of leaf beats out the rest — and is there really a difference if a recipe calls for Boston instead Bibb?
Botanically speaking, the plant Lactuca sativa includes few basic types, like leaf lettuce, romaine, iceberg, and butterhead, but you’ll want to mix other popular greens into your dishes for the biggest nutritional boost.
“Different types of lettuce have varying levels of specific nutrients,” explains Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “For example, spinach is higher in iron than kale, but kale provides glucosinolates, compounds that may decrease your risk of certain cancers.”
No matter what you choose, each kind comes packed with antioxidants, water, fiber, and essential nutrients — stuff most us could eat a lot more of. “Fifty percent of Americans don’t eat enough fiber, nor do we consume recommended amounts of potassium, calcium, and magnesium, minerals that are found in, you guessed it, leafy greens and lettuce,” she says. “Load up your meals and snacks with more produce — all types of lettuce, leafy greens, and cruciferous veggies, like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Bok choy, and Brussels sprouts — to reap the best benefits for both health and flavor.”
Now romaine calm and lettuce us walk you through the produce aisle:
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There are three types of leaf lettuce: red, green, and oak. Don’t look for a “head” on them because the leaves branch from a single stalk. For this reason, leaf lettuce is generally more perishable than head varieties. You’ll often see it in “baby lettuce,” mesclun, and spring mixes because of its tenderness. Red leaf has a burgundy tint and mild flavor, similar to that of green leaf, while oak leaf is spicier and nuttier. To avoid instant wilting, postpone dressing leaf lettuce until just before serving.
With its long, slightly bitter leaves and sturdy, sweeter centers, romaine provides a robust crunch to any meal. This variety received a lot of attention last year as the subject of multiple recalls due to E. coli contamination. The good news: The CDC has officially deemed the outbreak over so you can dig into those Caesar salads once again.
Iceberg is crisp and hearty, but it’s not as flavorful as other lettuces. When unwashed and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge, you can keep it for up to two weeks — twice as long as most other types of lettuce. Look for firm, densely packed heads that are heavy for their size. Try cutting iceberg into wedges and serving it the classic steakhouse way: drizzled with a little dressing.
There are two different types of butterhead lettuce: Boston and Bibb. The Boston variety has small, round, and loosely formed heads with soft, supple leaves that bruise easily. It’s larger and fluffier than Bibb, but both types of lettuce make perfect cups for cooked ground chicken or shrimp.
Bibb, on the other hand, is sweet and extra small (a head is the size of a fist)! It’s also quite expensive — at least twice the price of iceberg.
It’s not technically “lettuce,” but a cup of this cruciferous vegetable contains an entire day’s worth of vitamin A and C, plus all-important calcium and iron. And if you’re not a fan of the somewhat bitter taste, roasting the leaves with a little olive oil might be the way to go. (Homemade kale chips, anyone?)
Here’s another veg that goes by multiple names, including leaf chicory and Italian chicory. Purple-colored radicchio (pronounced “rah-dick-ee-yo”) can taste bitter fresh but sweeter when grilled or roasted.
A relative of radicchio, endives easily scoop up toppings with their spoon-shaped leaves or shine solo when roasted with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar.
Frisée also belongs to the radicchio/endive/chicory family, but the kind you’ll find in grocery stores typically features very green, curly leaves perfect for tossing in a fresh vinaigrette.
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