We all know that salads are good for us, but sometimes they just aren’t that appealing.
When I see a fast food salad made up of chunks of browning iceberg topped with dried out carrot shreds and tasteless tomato cubes – I roll my eyes and think that it’s no wonder some people won’t eat vegetables.
Vegetables should taste and look good, and clearly, in cases like this fast food salad, they don’t.
So how do you make a salad that tastes good – the kind that even avowed carnivores will happily chow down?
While what you put on top matters too, the most important thing to start with is a good foundation – the lettuce.
Lettuce comes in a huge range of varieties – with flavors going from buttery and mild, to sharp and bitter; textures ranging from delicate to crunchy, and colors spanning the spectrum from yellow to green to burgundy.
With all these choices, even the most ardent veggie-phobes or demanding foodies will find a lettuce to love.
While most of these are cultivars of the same species, , one of them is more distantly related – a cousin also from the aster family, Asteraceae – and my final selection is quite the interloper, but one of the most delectable salad greens around.
I’ll start with the most familiar and also introduce some more unusual cultivars – with recommendations for varieties you may have never encountered in your salad bowl – and how best to use them.
Let’s start off with a type of : crisphead, also known as head lettuce.
Sound exotic and interesting? Brace yourself. I’m talking about the category that includes good old iceberg.
I hope to refresh your interest in this veggie – or rather, redirect it.
Using crisphead in the type of sad salads that get served up at the fast food counter is only the tip of the, well, of what this variety of lettuce can be used for.
Crisphead cultivars like iceberg may be fairly subtle taste-wise, to put it nicely, but boy do they have amazing texture, particularly when shredded.
As their name suggests, crispheads are crunchy and crisp – and since they are full of water they are wonderfully refreshing during the sweltering days of summer.
And while crispheads are generally mild tasting, some varieties have more of a sweet flavor.
Consider for a moment that perhaps this lettuce would be a better team player in meals where its crisp texture can really shine.
If you’re ready to give iceberg another chance, why not try tossing some shredded iceberg in with some Thai noodles, or layering it into tacos, as in this recipe for crunchy beef tacos from our sister site Foodal?
The leaves of these plants grow in heads – compact round balls – that keep the inner leaves pale and sparkling clean, making kitchen prep easier than with loose leaf cultivars.
And when you pick a crisphead variety to grow in the backyard, you have a number of choices.
Unlike the ubiquitous ‘Iceberg’ variety that was adapted for growing in the northern regions of the US, some crispheads are more heat tolerant – and some even come in red hues, such as ‘Sioux.’
‘Iceberg’ is often poo-pooed for its low nutritional value, but red crisphead varieties will bring extra nutrients along with their crunch.
The red compounds in vegetables, such as red crispheads, contain anthocyanins, which have multiple health benefits according to studies such as this one in Food and Nutrition Research by H. E. Khoo and fellow authors.
Red cultivars can be a little harder to find, but heat resistant varieties are more widely available.
‘Crisphead Great Lakes 118’ is a green cultivar that’s heat resistant, bolt resistant, and is mature and ready to harvest in 80-89 days.
This variety is available in seed packs of various sizes at True Leaf Market.
As the star of the Caesar salad, romaine ( var. ) is a familiar sight in the lettuce world.
Also known as cos, this long leaved salad green is crisp and crunchy, and usually has a mild, or just slightly bitter taste.
In general, romaine cultivars are among the most heat tolerant lettuce varieties.
Romaine can be found in green, red, bronze, or speckled varieties.
It’s fairly easy to find romaine in the supermarket – but usually only the green variety – so if you grow your own you can put a colorful spin on those Caesar salads.
‘Freckles,’ a speckled cultivar, has long green leaves with red spots. Maturing in 50-70 days, ‘Freckles’ can be grown in full sun or partial shade.
You’ll find packs of seeds for the ‘Freckles’ romaine cultivar in a variety of sizes at True Leaf Market.
Sometimes in life things get named perfectly, and I feel that butterhead is one such example. Butterheads don’t just have a soft, buttery texture – they also have a creamy, buttery taste.
If you happen to know a veggie-phobe, you should try sneaking some butterhead onto their plate.
Butterheads have none of the strong, bitter, or pungent tastes that put some people off of eating fresh, healthy greens, and their leaves are soft and tender.
And recipes such as this one from Foodal combine this type of lettuce with mellow avocado and fruity mango, for a salad that tastes truly decadent.
The broad, tender leaves of butterheads form a loose head, making it easy to harvest leaves as needed in the garden, cut-and-come-again style.
Also known as Bibb or Boston lettuce, butterheads ( var. ) come in a selection of green and red shades, and most varieties are moderately heat tolerant.
‘Deer Tongue,’ one of my favorite cultivars, is one of the heat tolerant ones.
Its arrowhead-shaped leaves are just as delicate and delicious as other butterhead varieties.
This heirloom variety is slow to bolt and will mature in 46 days.
‘Deer Tongue’ seeds can be found in packs of 500 seeds from David’s Garden Seeds via Amazon.
4. Loose Leaf
Influenced by spending many years living in France, most of the time when I eat salad as a side dish, I want it to be fairly simple – just lettuce with some oil and vinegar, that’s it.
Loose leaf lettuces are the perfect choice for such no-fuss side dish salads.
Loose leaf cultivars () generally have mild, sweet flavors, and a texture that is both tender and toothsome – so these fresh greens do well without a lot of adornment.
Varieties of this type of lettuce come in shades of yellow, green, red, bronze, and burgundy. Their large, broad leaves are sometimes flat with frilled edges, and sometimes extremely savoyed or frilly, as in the case of the ‘Lollo Rosso’ cultivar.
Loose leaf types tend to be slow to bolt and heat tolerant, lasting longer into the summer than heading lettuces.
One of the most intensely colored lettuce cultivars out there, ‘Ruby’ is an heirloom variety that has a deep burgundy color and ruffled leaves.
This variety comes to maturity and is ready to harvest in 40-50 days.
You can find seeds for ‘Ruby’ in a variety of packet sizes at Eden Brothers.
5. Oak Leaf
A distinct type of loose leaf lettuce, oak leaf lettuce () has the same subtle flavors as regular loose leaf, but with a smaller, deeply lobed leaf.
The leaves of this type of lettuce can easily be turned into a salad without chopping or tearing them, and they have a delicate texture.
I like to use oak leaf lettuce as a neutral backdrop where the toppings are going to steal the show, such as this recipe from Foodal for a salad loaded with berries and walnuts and finished with a cayenne honey vinaigrette.
Like other loose leaf types, oak leaf lettuces tend to be heat tolerant and bolt resistant. The leaves are easy to cut and harvest as needed.
Frequently found in green or red, there are also bronze-colored cultivars.
‘Bronze Guard’ will give you a slightly bitter but flavorful and juicy lettuce. It comes to maturity in 70 days.
You can find ‘Bronze Guard’ in seed packs of various sizes from Mountain Valley Seed Company at True Leaf Market.
Now that we’ve made our way to Batavia lettuce, we have our feet firmly planted in the realm of bitter salad greens.
Also called French crisp, Batavia type lettuce is not as closely related to the salad greens listed above as they are to each other.
While still a member of the aster family, Batavia is actually a type of chicory – var , to be precise – though it is on the mild end of the spectrum among these bitter veggies.
It’s also called escarole or broadleafed endive and is a great choice when you want a little bitterness in your salad for an exciting flavor contrast.
I love how the bitterness of Batavia combines with apples, red onions and blue cheese.
The leaves grow in dense heads that are somewhere between crisphead and leaf types – not quite a cabbage-like head but not quite a loose leaf either.
The thick, whorled leaves are usually large and broad with frilled edges, and the texture is crisp and juicy, with buttery inner leaves.
Compared to most varieties, Batavia types are heat tolerant and bolt resistant – lending them one of their other monikers, “Summercrisp.”
There are many different cultivars of Batavia, in colors ranging from green, to red, to red tipped, to deep magenta.
‘Broadleaf Batavian’ is a light green variety whose large leaves grow densely. This variety comes to maturity in 85 days.
To grow your own ‘Broadleaf Batavian’ you can find seeds available in a variety of sizes at True Leaf Market.
7. Corn Salad
I’m finishing my list of recommendations with one of my all time favorite lettuces, and unless you grew up in France, it’s possible you’ve never tried this one before.
This culinary delight is called “mache” in France, where it may be just as popular as ‘Iceberg’ is in the US – though it’s far tastier.
Mache () is a member of the honeysuckle, or Caprifoliaceae, family, and is more commonly known by the name of “corn salad” in English.
Less frequently it’s also called “lamb’s lettuce” – but when I have any of this around, I certainly won’t be sharing any of it with my sheep.
This plant doesn’t grow to the same size as the or Batavia varieties above. Mache plants grow into small, green rosettes.
One or two plants will make a forkful – a salad bowl will hold dozens of individual plants.
When you put a bite of mache in your mouth, you’ll notice a texture that is both tender and crisp, along with a delicate mild and slightly nutty flavor.
In France mache is often served as a salad with beets, walnuts, and a walnut oil vinaigrette – which is also my preferred way to enjoy it.
It would also go perfectly in this recipe for beet and orange salad from our sister site, Foodal.
Mache makes a wonderful winter green since it is very cold hardy, overwintering in Zone 5 or higher without protection.
‘Vit’ is a variety of corn salad that matures in 47 days, and does well in both spring and fall plantings.
You can find ‘Vit’ in packs of 200 organic seeds at Burpee.
Greens to Envy
With so many textures, flavors, and colors to choose from you won’t have any excuse to settle for a sad salad, ever again.
Which of these leafy greens are you ready to plant in your garden – or add to your next salad? Let us know in the comments.
“7 of the Best Lettuce Varieties for Your Garden” was first posted here