Distinctly opposite attributes were ascribed to lettuce in its earliest days. Ancient Greeks and Romans valued the milky substance secreted by cut lettuce as a sleep-inducer and mild sedative, able to cool sexual urges. Conversely, ancient Egyptians associated lettuce consumption with male virility, giving lettuce as an offering to Min, the (always well-endowed) god of fertility and sexuality.
A less-racy tidbit concerns “Iceberg” lettuce, which earned its name in the 1920s when it was transported by wagon through the U.S., carried in heaps of ice that made the wagons look like icebergs.
While a vast number of lettuce variations are available, these “umbrella terms” encompass the more common U.S. lettuces:
- Iceberg or Crisphead lettuce is the most common in the U.S. With its subtle flavor and minimal nutritional value, it is primarily popular for its nice crunch.
- Romaine or cos lettuce is most famous as a feature in Caesar salads, and its higher nutrition content makes it good substitute for iceberg lettuce in any dish.
- Summer Crisp or Batavian is a crunchy middle-ground between iceberg and looseleaf varieties.
- Looseleaf lettuces have soft, delicate leaves with a subtle taste.
- Chinese lettuces can be found at some specialty markets and are more flavorful and nutritional than most other varieties, with a bit of bitterness.
Look for leaves that are heavy and crisp, avoiding any spotted, wilting and slimy leaves (if it grosses you out in the store, you probably won’t want to eat it at home).
Try to purchase lettuce right before you use it—its high water content means that it can’t be kept fresh for long. Wrapping it in plastic and storing it in the coldest part of the refrigerator will make it last for a few days.
Apples, bananas and pears emit an ethylene gas that makes fruits and vegetables over-ripen. Avoid keeping lettuce near these fruits, as they can cause the leaves to go bad quickly, often becoming smattered with brown spots.
- Limp lettuce leaves should be rinsed in icy water just before serving to restore some crispiness.
- Leaves should be dry before tossed with salad dressing. If leaves are wet, dressings will slide to the bottom rather than clinging to the lettuce.
- Dressing shouldn’t be added until right before lettuce is eaten, or the leaves will become too soft.
- Leaves can be torn rather than cut into pieces.