Oh the Variety!
Lettuce is a universal term we use when we refer to anything that appears to be a leafy green that we can throw into a salad. When we get down to it though, actual lettuce comes in five distinct classifications, which all hail from the Asteraceae/Compositae (Aster) Family. The five distinct classifications of lettuce are:
• Leaf or Loose-leaf
• Cos or Romaine
• Celtuce or Stem
In this article, I’m only going to cover Crisphead lettuce. However, since each variety is such a wonderful part of the lettuce family, I will follow up with the other four varieties in articles to follow.
History of Lettuce:
Lettuce in general terms has grown wild since antiquity. However, the ancient Egyptians were thought to be the first to cultivate it, with Greeks and Romans commencing soon after. As the first millennium rolled around, several varieties of lettuce began to crop up, and by the 16th century, Europe began its cultivation of this leafy delight. With the arrival of the 20th century, people were consuming lettuce around the world.
So what is a Crisphead lettuce? Crisphead lettuce (Lactuca sativa var. capitate) is typically what we think of as iceberg lettuce. There are other varieties of Crisphead, but indeed iceberg is the most well-known of this type of lettuce, and mostly consumed by Americans. All varieties produce a head that can be harvested. The flavor of Crispheads is known to be mild and the texture is firm, and as the name implies, crisp. They are popular in the standard or wedge salads, great on sandwiches, or useful when creating lettuce wraps.
While we often hear that Crisphead lettuces (iceberg in particular) are void of nutrition, this isn’t entirely true. While they aren’t the most nutrient-packed plants growing in the garden, they do have some nutrition to offer. One cup (72grams) of Crisphead lettuce offers 10 calories, 0grams of fat, 1gram of protein, and 2grams of carbohydrates (1g of which is dietary fiber). Crisphead lettuces are an excellent source of Vitamin K-1. They also offer Vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, calcium, and non-heme iron. Crispheads are approximately 96% water so they offer hydrating benefits too. Pretty good for a food that’s often mistakenly called nutritionally void.
For those living in areas that have mild winters and/or long cool springs, Crisphead lettuce seeds can be sown directly in the garden, approximately ¼ inch deep in rows 2’ apart. If you live in areas that have harsher winters or shorter springs, it’s best to start seeds indoors 2 months prior to last expected frost date, and then transplant the seedlings into the garden once all danger of frost has passed. Plant the seedlings 2’ apart. However, before planting be sure to harden seedlings for better success.
Known as a hardy cool-weather vegetable, Crispheads will perform best in areas where summer’s heat doesn’t creep much past 80°F. Due to their knack for being able to tolerate low temperatures, Crispheads are exceptional selections for fall garden planting schemes, and will produce tighter heads in cooler weather. In fact, letting them endure a light fall frost can sweeten the leaf flavor. However, this lettuce can be successfully grown in warmer climates as long as you plant and harvest early enough. When planting Crispheads it’s best to stagger planting times so you will be able to harvest in stages, allowing for the harvest of 1-2 heads each week.
Crisphead lettuces aren’t too picky about soil type as long as they receive plenty of water (this is critical to achieving leaf tenderness) and the soil stays moist and is amended with nutrients. Frequent light watering results in rapid leaf development, giving you a high-quality lettuce. While the lettuce’s soil does need to remain moist, do note that overwatering may lead to disease, soft growth, and/or scalding or burning of the leaf margins. Organic mulches and fertilizers can help prevent these plants from suffering moisture and soil temperature fluctuations, as well as help, provide adequate nutrients for proper growth. Another thing to be aware of when placing your lettuce in your garden is to sow plants in an area that receives partial sun, approximately 6 hours per day, but doesn’t allow your lettuce to burn.
Crisphead Companions – Good and Bad
Lettuces can also suffer from aphid attacks. To help prevent this, invite predatory insects and spiders into your garden by establishing plants such as chives, garlic, marigolds, dill, cilantro, and fennel. As bonus plants like garlic and chives actually repel the aphids themselves, and hey, they and the other herbs will go great in salad along with your lettuce!
When it’s time to harvest your Crisphead lettuce, look for plants with firm centers and begin your harvesting before summer’s heat soars above 80°F. Most plants will be ready 2-3 months after planting and when heads are approximately 4” in diameter. Lettuces should be harvested in the early part of the morning as they are at their firmest at this time. Once picked, Crispheads can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Beyond chopping up heads of lettuce and putting them in your next salad, which is a fine choice in itself, you can use this lettuce for other delightful dishes. You can use it to add crunch to your favorite sandwich, as shredded lettuce for tacos, you can toss it into stir-fries and soups, or use the large full leaves in place of buns or tortillas to change up your burgers and wraps. Another thing you can try if you want to experiment in the world of fermentation is to dry-salt ferment your lettuce. Since lettuce has such a high water content, it works well for this fermentation method.
Dry-Salted Fermented Crisphead Lettuce
Lettuce (as many heads as you want to ferment)
Brine Water (ratio of 4 cups water to 2 T salt), if needed
Wash the Crisphead lettuce and remove any brown leaves
Shred the lettuce into narrow strips that are 3-4” long
Using an open ceramic crock or large glass bowl place lettuce strips in the crock/bowl
Place a layer of lettuce in the crock/bowl, sprinkle lightly with salt, repeat
Stir lettuce and salt layers
Taste the mixture
Add additional salt if there isn’t an obvious saltiness to the lettuce
Using a large lettuce leaf, topped with a heavy plate, that fits just inside the crock/bowl, weigh down the salty lettuce mixture
The brine will begin to form and within 24 hours the lettuce should be covered in brine (lettuce should be at least 2” , below the brine). If not, add additional brine water
Allow to sit and rest (covered loosely with a tea towel or cheese cloth) for several days, tasting each day after 3 days
Transfer fermented lettuce to glass jars when desired taste is reached
Place jars of fermented lettuce in refrigerator to store
This is a simple recipe that just requires a little patience. You can change up the flavor by adding whatever herbs and spices work for you, including what you planted to keep the aphids away, and the ladybugs coming to your garden, including those garlic and chives. If you choose to add anything, do so during the layering and mixing process (prior to the resting stage). And if you save and use some of your Crisphead lettuce to make a salad, the fermented lettuce can make a pleasant addition to that salad.
Contrary to popular belief, Crisphead lettuce isn’t just a nutrient void crunchy collection of water. It is indeed a lovely addition to the garden and makes many of our dishes have the distinct crispy texture and can be so easily added to the many things we already enjoy. While we covered the charming Crisphead, we aren’t stopping there. Coming soon we will discover what we can do with the Butterhead lettuce! So stay tuned my lettuce loving friends, and we shall master the world of lettuce one variety at a time!
Hard, G. 2017. Regents of the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota Extension. Growing salad vegetable crops. https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/vegetables/growing-salad-vegetable-crops/
United States Department of Agriculture. Lettuce. https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide/lettuce
University of Illinois Extension. 2017. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. College of ACES. Lettuce. https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/lettuce.cfm