Salad greens in the market are so appealing - sometimes resembling flower bouquets in their beauty - that it's easy to over-buy. I try to grab an assortment of colors and textures and before I know it, my crisper drawer runneth over. And you know how the next steps go. One day you have an abundance of lovely leaves and the next, fermenting bags of chlorophyll. But it doesn't have to come to that. With some careful selection and prepping and a few tricks for eating your way through the pile you can make sure that not a leaf goes to waste. Here are ways to make sure you aren't wasting your lettuce on lettuce.
Sourcing the Best Salad Greens
To get the most out of your greens, you want to start with the freshest leaves. Look for leaves that are vibrant and have snappy texture. Avoid lettuce that looks tired and limp or bunches that have been picked over and are showing excessive creasing.
Perfection needn't be your guide, however. If you are shopping in the farmers' market, dirt is just fine. In fact, a little dirt guarantees that the lettuce hasn't been over-handled. A little insect damage won't affect good flavor or texture either and may indicate that your salad wasn't too heavily sprayed with toxic inputs.
To increase your lettuces' shelf-life, you would do best to buy early in the morning if you are shopping in an outdoor market. While not a factor in grocery store shopping, lettuce that sits on a table outside, particularly on a hot summer day, will definitely be worse for wear. So, try to scoop up your salad before the heat of the day sets in.
Storing Your Salad Greens
The enemies of lettuce are dry air and heat, both of which evaporate moisture from the delicate cell walls of the plant. Once you purchase your lettuce, it's best not to let it linger outside of the icebox for too long. Make your market trip your last stop on your way home. If you are driving, avoid putting the lettuce in direct sun or in a hot trunk where it will bake. Lettuce does not like to sunbathe.
When you get home, it's best to get the lettuce to a cool place. The crisper drawer works well because it is the highest humidity zone in the refrigerator, which keeps the leaves from drying out and wilting. While tight heads of lettuce, such as iceberg and radicchio, can be tossed in with your other vegetables, you want to be sure that delicate leaves are kept on top of the produce pile so they don't get crushed and bruised. It's also a good idea to keep leaves with the shortest shelf life on top so you see - and use - them first.
You can also create your own "super crisper" drawer by storing your lettuce in a sealed environment, such as a reusable plastic bag or a dish or container with an airtight lid. Add a damp paper towel to keep the humidity level at its highest.
Some eaters prefer to pre-wash their lettuce so that it's ready to go. You can keep such lettuce for a couple days in a sealed bag or container. But you don't want to wash and prep more than you will use in the nearest of futures. While it will shorten the shelf life of your greens, the convenience of having them prepped and dinner-ready might mean that you go through them more quickly so you actually end up wasting less.
If you find yourself with greens that still have their root ball attached - this is common for cress - you can store them like bouquets. Just set the roots in a heavy glass or mug, add a little water and swath the green tops in a damp paper towel or reusable bag and store the whole set up in the fridge. Such greens will keep this way for three to five days.
Here are a few of the most popular salad greens available, grouped by their shelf-life, with the more delicate leaves expiring the most quickly:
Most Perishable: Use Within One to Two Days
These greens will only withstand minimal handling.
Mesclun - Mesclun is a generic term used to describe any variety of leaves harvested when they are young and at their most delicate texture and flavor. They are fragile and must be washed with the lightest touch. Because of their feathery texture they are best served fresh and dressed sparingly, perhaps with only a drizzle of oil and a few sprinkles of vinegar or lemon juice.
Delicate: Use Within Three Days
These salad greens require gentle handling.
Mâche - Also called corn lettuce, mâche is very popular in Europe and is gaining a fan following here in the States. It has a succulent texture with a good tooth. It bruises easily so care must be taken in its preparation.
Arugula - Also known as rocket or roquette, this spicy leaf has long been popular in Italian cuisine, where it is loved for its spicy bite.
Watercress - Cress is a spicy, sometimes almost fiery, salad green: something you might not expect from its small, tender leaves. Its heat is a great counterpoint to fatty foods; it makes a transcendent BLT, in my opinion.
Mizuna - This Asian "lettuce" is actually a type of mustard; slightly spicy, quite like an Asian version of arugula.
Tatsoi - Young leaves of this Asian green are tender and a bit of a cross between mustard and spinach.
Medium: Use Within Three to Five Days
These greens are known for their sturdier leaves.
Bibb - These tender, sweet lettuces grow in closely formed rosettes. While the leaves are quite delicate, their compact shape helps them to retain their freshness.
Boston/Butter - Butterhead lettuces look very similar to Bibb but grow in a fuller sized head.
Red/Green Leaf - These large-leaf lettuces have a neutral flavor. They're slightly more complex than romaine but don't pack any heat. They are a great way to add color and texture to a salad or to tone down more peppery leaf mixes.
Frisée - Also called curly endive, frisee is bitter and sturdy. It's important to break it up into smaller pieces for easier eating or the fronds can be quite unwieldy on the tines of a fork. It's the sturdiest of the salad greens in this category, but its frilly ends make it susceptible to wilting.
Hardy: Lasts Seven to Ten Days
Loosely wrap these greens in the refrigerator for longer shelf life.
Iceberg - The most long-lasting lettuce, the water-filled, compact heads keep in the crisper for a week or more.
Romaine -This long-leaf lettuce has some staying power in the crisper drawer as well. Wilting outer leaves can be trimmed away to reveal fresh inner cores for over a week.
Radicchio - Radicchio is a bitter, purple chicory with a lot of personality. In cold, humid conditions, radicchio can be held for up to two weeks.
Endive - Another chicory, the bitter endive has slender leaves that are about four to five inches long. Its compact shape helps it stay fresh for about a week and sometimes more under ideal conditions.
Prepping Salad Greens to Make Them Last Longer
Before you use any salad greens, they need to be washed thoroughly. Salad greens are often sandy or gritty and you want to wash all of that away. Greens can also harbor bacteria and washing your leaves thoroughly is the best chance of removing such contamination.
You don't need a special kind of wash to clean lettuce. But potable water is essential. Never wash lettuce in water that isn't fit to drink or eat lettuce (or other raw vegetables) in areas where you don't trust the drinking water.
If you want an extra level of comfort, you can add a little vinegar or lemon juice to the water and let your lettuce linger in the acidulated water for ten minutes or so. The extra acid will help destroy any lingering bacteria.
It's also important to wash pre-packaged lettuces. Even if the container says "triple-washed" or "ready to eat" a quick shower will give you a better chance of removing any lingering bacteria. Pre-packaged cut lettuces have been at the center of a number of recalls. The large batch processing allows contamination to spread quickly. You can significantly reduce your chance of exposure by simply washing lettuce before you eat it.
Once your lettuce is clean the key to success is to dry, dry, dry the leaves. Wet lettuce makes for a water-logged salad. Dry in a salad spinner, blot with towels or load into a clean pillowcase and swing in a circular motion, turning your whole body into a salad centrifuge.
Large leaves should be torn into bit sized pieces. You can cut head lettuce but doing so causes the edges to quickly discolor or "rust."
Refreshing Tired Salad Greens
If you find yourself with some greens that are lacking a little luster, it's easy to perk them back up. Simply plunge delicate lettuces into a sink or large bowl of iced water for 15-20 minutes. Drain and dry and they will look brand new.
To revive crunchy lettuces such as romaine and iceberg, soak them in a large bowl of water with a splash of vinegar added for about ten minutes. Drain, rinse and refrigerate for an hour and their crisp texture will be restored.
Use it Up!
If you find yourself with an abundance of lettuce leaves, you can use these ideas to put them to work:
Lettuce greens are juicy things and make a great addition to any sort of smoothie. Even peppery greens, such as arugula, can add a nice little spicy kick to a fruit flavored drink.
Trying to cut the carbs? Use a nice big lettuce leaf as your next sandwich or wrap container.
Puree lettuce leaves with some herbs, oil and a bit of cheese and/or nuts if you have them on hand for a lovely green sauce. Toss it with pasta or rice or serve alongside your favorite grilled foods.
Cooked salad greens? Yes, you can braise bitter salad greens such as endive, radicchio and frisee to tame their bite.
A quick flick in a hot, oiled pan turns lettuce into a tender side dish.
You can use lettuce as a substitute for cabbage or sprouts in any Asian stir fry.
You can even grill lettuces such as romaine or endive to pick up some smoky flavor and soften the crunchy heads.
Recipe: Sauteed Lettuce and Peas
Sautéed lettuce. Yes, it's a thing. And a very delicious thing if you believe the French. This combination is a classic side that is as elegant as it is easy. Because you are going to cook the lettuce leaves, this is a great recipe for using up the bits of salad greens that are threatening to whither in your crisper drawer. I add loads of lemon to brighten it. You could start by rendering a piece of bacon or two in the pan if you wanted a heartier flavor.
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups of fresh or frozen peas
Zest and juice of 1 lemon (about ¼ cup)
Up to four cups of lettuce leaves, torn into bite-size pieces if necessary
Sauté the onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, in the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until translucent, about three to five minutes. Add the peas, lemon zest and a splash of water and cover to steam the peas until they are bright green (about two minutes). Uncover and sauté until the water has evaporated, the peas have cooked through and are glazed with the melted butter. Add the lettuce and sauté until barely wilted, about one minute. Add the lemon juice, adjust the seasoning and serve.