The Great Salad Shake-Up

How to Pick the Right Type of Lettuce for Way Better Salads

July  3, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

What makes a good salad great? We’re answering just that in The Great Salad Shake-Up, a mini-series on everything from the right lettuce for you (it’s out there!) to how to ditch the oil in dressing (yes, you can). BYO salad spinner.


It used to be blasphemous to make a Caesar salad with anything besides romaine, but over the years, we’ve started to take ourselves less seriously. Turns out, the anchovy-laden, garlic-heady dressing is just as good with sturdy kale. And if it’s as good with sturdy kale, why not radicchio? Or Belgian endive?

If you know each lettuce’s personality—its flavor, texture, and commingling ability—you can mix-and-match your salads to no end.

We think this is a very good thing. Which is why we gathered 16 varieties of lettuce and broke them down into a handy guide, so each one can reach its fullest potential.


Arugula

Also goes by: Italian cress, rocket, roquette, rugula, rucola.
Flavor: Peppery and mustardy, almost like radishes, with a smidge of bitterness.
Texture: More tender than a crunchier option, like romaine, but holds up well when dressed.
Look for: Emerald green color, with no wilted or slimy leaves.
Pairs well with: Creamy cheeses (mozzarella, burrata, goat), cooked grains, boiled potatoes, ripe stone fruit, roasted fall vegetables, toasted nuts.
Avoid: Creamy dressings, like ranch, which would weigh down the leaves.
Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson called arugula a kitchen essential, when writing to his gardener at Monticello.

Belgian Endive

Also goes by: French endive, witloof.
Flavor: Slightly bitter, but also mild, like celery.
Texture: Crisp, juicy, and snappy.
Look for: Pale-colored, tight-knit heads, with no discolored or wilty outer leaves.
Pairs well with: Citrusy dressings, mashed anchovies, crispy bacon, toasted nuts, crumbled cheese (blue, pecorino, cheddar).
Avoid: Too many mix-ins. Endive is delicate, don’t let it get lost in the crowd.
Fun fact: Grows in total darkness (spooky!) to prevent it from turning too green.

Butterhead

Also goes by: Butter. Notable varieties include bibb (aka limestone) and Boston.
Flavor: Sweet, mild, and yes, buttery.
Texture: Soft and tender, with a laidback waviness.
Look for: Olive-green, tight-knit heads with minimal bruising.
Pairs well with: Classic vinaigrettes, creamy dressings such as ranch, croutons, sweet summer produce (cucumbers, tomatoes), and meaty stir-fries for lettuce wraps.
Avoid: Washing too vigorously or tossing too much.
Fun fact: Its nickname “limestone” refers to Bibb lettuce grown in limestone soil, common in Kentucky and Indiana.

Chicory

Also goes by: Curly endive.
Flavor: Brightly bitter (and often cooked because of this).
Texture: Curly, ruffly, and chewy.
Look for: Vivid green leaves with a distinct crispness.
Pairs well with: Sweet-tangy fruit (nectarines, cherries, apples), crispy bacon (and its fat), roast chicken, and fatty nuts (walnuts, pecans).
Avoid: Wilted or soggy leaves.
Fun fact: During the American Civil War, Louisianians turned to roasted, ground chicory roots as a way to stretch their coffee, a tradition that carries on today at iconic New Orleans breakfast spots like Café Du Monde.

Escarole

Also goes by: Batavian endive, broad-leaved endive.
Flavor: Kinda bitter, but milder than its relative chicory.
Texture: Tender but sturdy, and great cooked in soups.
Look for: Broad-shouldered leaves with a soft green hue.
Pairs well with: Anchovy vinaigrettes, creamy-punchy dressings like this garlic one, fresh or dried fruits, toasted nuts, spunky cheeses (feta, blue).
Avoid: Mild-mannered dressings that can't hold their own.
Fun fact: The name escarole comes by way of the Latin word esca, which means food.

Frisée

Also goes by: Curly chicory.
Flavor: Subtly bitter and very refreshing.
Texture: Frilly, feathery, and spiky.
Look for: All leaves attached to the core. Color can span white, yellow, and green.
Pairs well with: Thick dressings like blue cheese, crispy pancetta or bacon, extra-juicy produce (tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches), and runny eggs (poached, over-easy).
Avoid: Minimalist preparations with nothing sweet or fatty to cut the bitterness.
Fun fact: Often found in mesclun salad mixes (more on those below).

Iceberg

Also goes by: No known nickname. Let us know in the comments if you've heard of one!
Flavor: As mild as it gets.
Texture: Very crisp, very juicy.
Look for: Tight-knit heads, with a green-to-cream color.
Pairs well with: Thick dressings like blue cheese (cut the lettuce into a wedge), sandwiches or tacos (shred into confetti and pile on).
Avoid: Soft heads and soggy or browning leaves.
Fun fact: Called "iceberg" because it used to be covered in ice when transported.

Kale

Also goes by: Curly kale. Or, another popular variety, Tuscan kale, lacinato kale, inosaur kale, black kale, or cavolo nero.
Flavor: Hearty, mineraly, and intense, with broccoli-stalk vibes.
Texture: Ruffly, chewy, and sturdy.
Look for: Deeply colored green leaves with snappy stalks.
Pairs well with: Creamy dressings (especially yogurty or cheesy ones), mustardy vinaigrettes, chunky mix-ins.
Avoid: Yellowing leaves.
Fun fact: A member of the cabbage family, kale has been cultivated for over 2,000 years.

Looseleaf

Also goes by: Varieties include oak leaf, salad bowl, red leaf, green leaf.
Flavor: Earthy, but not overwhelmingly so.
Texture: Tender, like butterhead, but with more crunch.
Look for: Crisp leaves branching out from a single stalk.
Pairs well with: Simple preparations, either as a bed for another salad (chicken, egg, tuna), or cloaked in a full-flavored vinaigrette.
Avoid: Discolored or unevenly colored leaves.
Fun fact: Or, not so fun: Leaf lettuce goes bad quicker than head lettuce.

Mâche

Also goes by: Corn salad, field lettuce, lamb’s lettuce.
Flavor: Nutty and sweet, like a soft-spoken spinach.
Texture: Delicate and tender.
Look for: Deep green leaves, compact rosette heads.
Pairs well with: Light and bright vinaigrettes and limited mix-ins. Try piling it atop a grilled or pan-fried protein, like chicken or fish.
Avoid: Keeping it around too long—it perishes quickly.
Fun fact: Mâche has been grown in France since the 17th Century.

Mesclun

Also goes by: Field greens, salad mix, spring mix.
Flavor: Depends! This mix of young tender lettuces can include arugula, chervil, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, oak leaf, mâche, radicchio, and sorrel.
Texture: See above, but mostly tender with some crunch.
Look for: Crisp and perky leaves.
Pairs well with: Simple preparations, either as a bed for another salad (chicken, egg, tuna), or cloaked in a full-flavored vinaigrette.
Avoid: Wilty, soggy leaves (check the bottom of the container to be sure).
Fun fact: The name "mesclun" derives from the Provençal French word mesclumo, or mix.

Mizuna

Also goes by: Siu Cai.
Flavor: Peppery, mustardy, and Brassica-y.
Texture: Feathery, with jaggedy, sawtooth-like edges.
Look for: Crisp green leaves.
Pairs well with: Spicy-sweet dressings (honey-mustard, maple-horseradish, carrot-ginger), roasted root vegetables, and fresh sweet vegetables (snap peas, cucumbers, tomatoes).
Avoid: Wilting, browning leaves.
Fun fact: Mizuna is great cooked, too, especially with pork, garlic, and scallions for an omelet.

Radicchio

Also goes by: Radicchio di Verona. (Another, more slender-shaped variety is Radicchio Treviso.)
Flavor: Confidently bitter.
Texture: Tender meets crunchy, like a sterner butterhead.
Look for: Tight-knit heads with pomegranate-red leaves and white ribs.
Pairs well with: Cheese! Any and all kinds. Also, anchovy vinaigrettes, minced boiled eggs, and toasted nuts. Try piling it atop a grilled or pan-fried protein, like chicken or fish.
Avoid: Wilty heads with sagging outer leaves.
Fun fact: Radicchio loves to be roasted and grilled, too.

Romaine

Also goes by: Cos.
Flavor: Mild but grassy.
Texture: Crunchy and ruffly, with a juicy bite.
Look for: Dark outer leaves, that become progressively lighter toward the center.
Pairs well with: Caesar dressing, of course. But also any creamy dressing and any mix-in (Romaine can handle being tossed).
Avoid: Browning, soggy leaves.
Fun fact: Romaine got its nickname Cos because the variety supposedly hails from the Aegean island of Cos.

Spinach

Also goes by: Spinnedge and Spynoches, according to the first-known English cookbook The Forme of Cury, published in 1390.
Flavor: Earthy, mineraly, and slightly bitter.
Texture: Tender, thin, and slightly spongy.
Look for: Dark green leaves. Flat-leaf and baby spinach are best for salads.
Pairs well with: Eggs (poached, boiled, over-easy), fruits (diced apples, dried cranberries, sliced apricots), and light vinaigrettes.
Avoid: Soggy, slouchy leaves.
Fun fact: When a dish calls itself “à la Florentine,” it’s usually referring to the inclusion of spinach.

Watercress

Also goes by: Yellowcress.
Flavor: Peppery and mustardy.
Texture: Tiny, crisp-tender leaves.
Look for: Despite its nickname, the leaves should be dark green, not yellow.
Pairs well with: Ripe avocado, super-sweet fruit (pineapple, peaches, oranges), tangy dairy (goat cheese, labneh).
Avoid: Discoloration or wilting.
Fun fact: As its name suggests, this variety loves to grow in the wild along shallow streams and brooks.

What’s your go-to lettuce for salads? Let us know in the comments!

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

3 Comments

Kat July 13, 2019
I grew up calling iceberg lettuce “head lettuce.”
 
dianetoomey July 3, 2019
Don't see a mention of fruit with b.endive: I enjoyed one of the best salads on a day hike. I made it from leftover chunks of grilled ahi, along with chopped apples, walnuts and belgian endive. I don't think there was blue cheese in there, but I would suggest it!
 
Smaug July 3, 2019
Aw, c'mon, you guys. Sometimes it seems that Food52 is on a mission to promote linguistic entropy, but it's important for words to mean SOMETHING- practically none of this stuff is lettuce.