How Well Do You Know Your Salad Greens? Lettuce Show You the Way.
Salad every day of the week? Don’t make that face. It doesn’t have to sound so same-old, same-old, when you’ve got so many types of lettuce to choose from.
Botanically speaking, lettuce falls into five categories: crisphead; butterhead; loose-leaf, or leaf; and romaine, or cos. (There’s also celtuce, or asparagus lettuce, which is cultivated for its edible stem.)
But within those overarching types, there’s room for a variety of textures and flavors. Whether you’re going for crisp and crunchy, delicate and tender, or a mix, you’ll find a lettuce variety to fill your bowl.
Here’s how the different types break down into the types of salad greens you’ll typically find at the grocery store, farmers market, or farm stand, along with some serving suggestions.
Green Leaf & Red Leaf
Green leaf and red leaf lettuces are the two main contenders in the loose-leaf lettuce category. You know them from their large, frilly leaves and crisp-tender texture. These are the quintessential salad lettuces that pair well with just about any kind of produce or salad dressing.
Oak leaf lettuce has a distinctive shape that — you guessed it — resembles the leaf from an oak tree. This loose-leaf lettuce can be either green or red, has a somewhat delicate texture, and plays well with other tender lettuces from the butterhead family or baby greens. Try it tossed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette and cherry tomatoes.
Mesclun, also commonly called spring greens, is a mix of baby leaf lettuces and other greens. It originated in southern France as a blend of wild greens, and was popularized in America, thanks to Alice Waters and other chefs promoting seasonal greenmarket cooking. Try Waters’ spring lettuce salad in homage.
Butterhead lettuce is aptly named, since the leaves of the bulbous lettuce heads can be very soft and sweet — almost buttery in texture. Two varieties are the most well-known: Boston is a slightly larger and floppier-leafed variety, while Bibb is the smaller and more compact of the two. These are the whole lettuce heads often grown hydroponically and sold in individual clamshells. Use them for lettuce wraps or in simple salads with citrus.
Iceberg lettuce is the most famous variety of crisphead lettuce. Whether you crave it as the base of a wedge salad, wrapped around a burger in place of a bun, or shredded in a hoagie or sub sandwich, it’s a cool and crisp contrast to rich flavors.
Little Gem is a smaller version of Romaine and as such, has a sweeter taste and slightly more tender texture — kind of like the love child of Romaine and Bibb lettuce. It’s as versatile as you would expect and can handle a strongly flavored vinaigrette. Try it with Christine Gallary’s garlicky house dressing.
Other Salad Greens
Technically, the greens below aren’t botanically lettuces. But you’ll find them in the salad section, so why not add them to your bowl as well?
Arugula may resemble miniature green oak leaves, but the flavor is stronger — sometimes peppery — and the texture can be crunchier than leaf lettuce. It’s great in all sorts of salads — but its flavor really shines in this simple arugula salad. Another tasty idea for arugula: Make a salad pizza by topping flatbreads with arugula tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, and some shaved Parmesan.
Radicchio is the biggest member of the chicory family, characterized by a slightly bitter flavor and colorful, crunchy leaves. The round or oblong heads of radicchio can be julienned or shredded for a crisp raw salad, or sliced in half to make roasted or grilled radicchio.
Endive is a relative of radicchio that’s slightly smaller with oblong, pointed leaves. Because each pale-green leaf is its own scoopable “boat,” it’s the green that you’ll often find on an hors d’oeuvre tray filled with everything from blue cheese and walnuts to smoked salmon salad. Of course you can also make salad with endive — try it in this chicory salad along with radicchio.
Frisée is the curly, “frizzy” variety of chicory with a sweeter flavor and more tender texture than the sturdy leaves of radicchio and endive. It’s the traditional base for the French salade Lyonnaise with bacon and a poached egg.
Mâche & Watercress
Mâche is a tender, small-leafed green that goes by a whole bunch of other names: corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, or nut lettuce. It grows wild and can be foraged. Try it tossed with other tender leaf lettuces with a light vinaigrette.