While in ancient times, lettuce was used only for the medicinal value of its seeds (the leaves were considered too bitter for human consumption), it is likely the most ubiquitous green vegetable in the Western world today. The three main categories—head lettuce, loose-leaf, and cos/romaine—all offer a light taste, crisp texture, and soft yet firm structure.

Head of lettuce held in a field of lettuce.

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History

Lettuce was first grown by ancient Egyptians as an offering to the gods. This use was passed along to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, who included lettuce in the origin stories of their deities. In 86 A.D., Roman emperor Domitian began serving lettuce salads at feasts to stimulate the appetite and encourage digestion. This led to Roman farmers developing many other varieties of lettuce, including the red-leaf varieties common today. More cultivars were created throughout the Middle Ages, and their ease of growth led to a rapid spread throughout the civilized world. By the 1800s, seed catalogs had begun an unscrupulous practice of renaming common lettuce varieties to trick farmers into thinking they were buying several different seeds. This, along with the subtle distinctions between varieties, makes it challenging for seed historians to trace true heirloom lettuces.

Nutrition

While the nutritional value varies with the specific cultivar, lettuce generally is high in vitamin A, C, and K, as well as folate, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Storage

Submerge whole lettuce head in fresh cold water, rinse thoroughly, then dry in a salad spinner until leaves are barely damp. Cover lettuce head with a paper towel to absorb moisture, and store in a half-sealed or perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for up to 5 days.

Preparation

Despite being best known for use in raw salads, sandwiches, and wraps, lettuce is also a handy addition to soups, stir-fry, dal, juices/smoothies, and even pesto or chutney. Well-structured leaves with firm stems can be cooked on the grill, or used as cups to hold ground meat, dip, or other fillings.

Cooking

Slice a firm lettuce variety (such as romaine or oak leaf) down the middle lengthwise, keeping the core intact. (If the lettuce head is very large, slice into quarters.) Brush lettuce sections with olive oil and crushed anchovy, if desired, and sprinkle all over with salt. Place cut side down on a hot grill for 2 to 3 minutes, pressing down to ensure a good sear. Flip and grill the opposite side for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from grill and top, if desired, with grated or shaved Parmesan cheese, halved cherry tomatoes, chunks of avocado, and garlic-soaked bread crumbs. Add additional olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, and pepper, and serve warm.

Pro Tips

Slicing lettuce with a metal knife causes a reaction that encourages discoloration and wilting. To avoid this, tear lettuce leaves by hand rather than cutting them with a knife.

Butter Lettuce

Beloved for its meltingly sweet taste, silky-textured leaves and high nutritional content, this variety of lettuce is also known as Bibb lettuce, named for the Kentucky farmer who developed this variety in the 1850s. The tender texture of this lettuce makes it particularly fragile—it is best to use within a day of bringing it home.

Crispino

This variety of iceberg produces a softer, darker green leaf with a mild, sweet taste. Outer leaves are ideal for wraps or lettuce cups, while the firm and crunchy core are perfect for a classic wedge salad.

Leaf Lettuce

This general classification refers to lettuce with leaves that grow loose on the stalk, rather than in a tightly packed head. Its thin, tender leaves make it a popular inclusion in spring mix or bagged “baby lettuce.” Avoid adding dressing until just before serving, as its fragile leaves bruise and wilt easily.

Little Gems Lettuce

Often described as a cross between butter and romaine, these tiny, sweet lettuces first became popular in French cooking and have only recently shown up in fine restaurants in North America. Their fresh taste and tender texture are best paired with other young vegetables as well as herbs and even fruit.

Oak Leaf Lettuce

Soft yet hearty, with spreading, ruffled leaves and a mildly nutty flavor, oak leaf is all-purpose lettuce that adds crisp texture to any salad, sandwich or wrap, and holds up well under heavy dressing or toppings.

Romaine

One of the oldest lettuce varieties, romaine lettuce can be seen in paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs. Its upright shape and tall height (sometimes up to 30 inches) made it a natural symbol of virility—it was believed that eating lettuce after a heavy meal restored the libido. The ancient Romans adopted this same belief, taking it so much to heart that this lettuce cultivar was eventually named for them.

Salanova

Developed in recent years by Dutch seed specialists, this miniature lettuce was bred to double the yield and shelf life of other lettuce varieties. Rather than growing in a head or at intervals along a stalk, the leaves of Salanova lettuce connect together at the bottom of the stem—one slice through the stem allows all leaves to fall off the stalk at once, offering amazing convenience along with sweet taste and tender texture.

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