That wedge salad you ate in 1980 was just the tip of the iceberg. Got it?
Lettuce is not usually thought of as a crowd pleaser. Not to knock the old standby iceberg, but it’s given lettuce the reputation of being bland, watery, and more of an afterthought than the star of the show. The truth is, there are many types of lettuce, each with its own flavor, texture, and color.
Lettuce typically grows best in slightly cooler temperatures, meaning that the best local leaves will be found through early summer and then again in late summer/early fall. All salad greens are potent sources of vitamins and minerals, but generally the darker the leaf, the more nutritional value. And, while kale and spinach are truly great additions to your plate, they are not technically lettuces so they are left off this list.
A great way to explore the different types of lettuce is with a trip to your local farmers market. You’ll be exposed to the multitudes of varieties and if you ask, you can usually snag a taste before committing to buying a large quantity. You can also find the varieties below in grocery stores, or even grow your own! No matter how you procure the greens, get ready to punch up your summer dishes with these seven diverse varieties of lettuce and never suffer through another sad side salad again.
Bright and peppery, bite-sized arugula makes a perfect salad base. This green originated from the Mediterranean and is also commonly referred to as “rocket.” Its tang balances out richer ingredients, making it a great combination with cured meats like prosciutto on a sandwich or pizza.
Great for: Salads, pesto, sandwiches, pizza topper.
This Italian superstar is one of the most visually compelling lettuces around. The vibrant purple leaves of radicchio (pronounced rah-dee-key-oh) are spicy and somewhat bitter, but mellow when taste if grilled or quickly sauteed. Because of its strong flavor, raw radicchio is best served in combination with other greens, like in this kale and radicchio salad, and goes great with a slightly sweet dressing
Best for: Grilling, sauteing, salads.
One of the most popular lettuce varieties, romaine is a good “starter” lettuce for those who are intimidated by the strong flavor profiles of some of the other varieties. Mild tasting but with a strong crunch and hearty texture, Romaine can stand up to any salad ingredient. It’s the staple in most Ceasar salad recipes, and can handle a creamy dressing without going limp.
Great for: Salads of all kinds, grilling.
Butter lettuce is extremely tender and smooth. Its mild taste makes it a perfect complement to delicate salad ingredients such as fresh herbs and mild seafood like shrimp or flaky white fish. Its supple texture means that butter lettuce leaves won’t break or crack when rolled, making them the perfect low-carb base for tacos and lettuce wraps.
Great for: Salads, tortilla or wrap replacement.
A member of the chicory family, Belgian endive is the less bitter cousin of radicchio, with a velvety texture. Shaped like a torpedo, endive leaves make the perfect vehicle for all sorts of fillings, and a perfect party-ready passed appetizer. It’s also hardy enough to stand up to grilling, sauteing, and baking. For a healthy take on comfort food, endive even makes the perfect base for nachos.
Great for: Salads, grilling, roasting.
Oak Leaf Lettuce
You can find oak leaf lettuce in both red and green colored leaves. Named because of their shape similar to the leaves of an oak tree, this variety is tender and mild in flavor. For this reason, it’s commonly found in spring and mesclun mixes, often in baby leaf form. This is one variety that’s too delicate to cook—consume it raw in salads of any type, adding dressing just ahead of serving to prevent wilting or sogginess.
Great for: Salads.
Bright and bitter, curly frisee is as fun to look at as it is to eat. This edgy green will last a little longer in the fridge than some of the more delicate varieties—up to a week if stored in the crisper drawer with some paper towels to absorb any excess moisture. Tip: local produce tends to last longer since there has been less time from harvest to market. Frisee is great as a salad base cold or warmed, and goes especially well topped with sweet fruit and rich cheese to balance out the bitterness.
Great for: Salads, warmed side dishes, base for cooked proteins.