Butter Lettuce -
[Butterhead, Boston, Bib or Limestone]
These are very tender loose leaf lettuces often packed in individual
plastic containers to protect them from damage. Of the two main
varieties, Bib Lettuce is the smaller and considered the more flavorful,
but Boston Lettuce is a suitable substitute. Packages I've seen in
Southern California do not use either designation but simply call the
contents "Butter Lettuce". The package often includes roots and a
hydroponic growing matrix to extend shelf life.
Green Leaf Lettuce
Green Leaf is too tender to be a good industrial product but it's a very
fine base for quality salads. Plenty of lettuce flavor with very moderate
bitterness and good color. The photo specimen, squished a bit flat in
shipping, as they always are, was 14 inches wide, 10 inches from stem to
tip and weighed 13 ounces.
Iceberg Lettuce - [Crisphead
Crisphead is actually the correct name, but nobody calls it that name.
This head lettuce is the darling of the lettuce industry and the fast
food chains. It's easy to handle and stands up well to processing and
shipping abuse. The fast food people like it because it's easy to shred,
bulks up a salad well and stays crisp and bulky for quite a while after
This lettuce was originally (and still is) grown in Salinas,
California. It was put on trains, packed with ice and shipped as far as
Maine year round, thus called "iceberg lettuce". It was very much
welcomed during New England winters.
Crisphead lettuce contains a lot of water and is 1/5th or less
nutritious as loose leaf lettuce. It has rather little lettuce flavor or
bitterness but can be useful for recipes that call for lettuce wedges and
such or where texture is more important than flavor or nutrition. It's
also easy to store in the fridge compared to leaf lettuce. The photo
specimen, a somewhat smallish one, was 5 inches diameter and weighed
Not actually lettuce, but a member of the Valerian family.
Red Leaf Lettuce
Very similar to Green Leaf Lettuce except for the
color. For taste and texture the two are interchangeable. The color is
caused by anthocyanin pigments which are the same antioxidants found
in red cabbage and red wine.
Romaine Lettuce -
The second most common lettuce in America after Iceberg
and the sturdiest of the leaf lettuces. It's shape and stiffness make it
relatively easy to handle but it does have quite a bit more lettuce flavor
than iceberg does. It is called for by many recipes where the leaf shape
and stiffness is desirable. The photo specimen was 13 inches high. It is
often used as a foundation layer on a platter with the featured items
placed over it.
Pretty much the same as Red Leaf Lettuce except for
being all deep red with almost no green. For taste and texture the two are
interchangeable. The color is caused by anthocyanin pigments which are the
same antioxidants found in red cabbage and red wine.
A-Choy - [Taiwan Lettuce,
Chinese Lettuce, Sword Lettuce; Yu Mai Tsai (China)]
This is the only common leaf lettuce in China, and is actually the
crown leaves from Stem Lettuce (see next paragraph). It is popular in
stir fries in Taiwan, and is always cooked - raw salads are not eaten
in China due to unsanitary growing conditions. This lettuce is now
widely available in markets serving a Chinese community - well, it is
here in Southern California anyway. It is much like a romaine
lettuce, but more bitter
Stem Lettuce - [Celtuce,
Celery Lettuce, Asparagus Lettuce, A-Choy Sum, Chinese Lettuce;
Wosun, Woju (China); L. sativa var asparagina alt var
augustana, var angustata]
This lettuce is grown mainly for its stem, which is peeled and sliced
or diced and used in stir fries. It is also often pickled. The flavor
is fairly mild, much like a slightly bitter cucumber, so it's usually
paired with stronger flavored items. The photo specimens were about
17 inches long (not counting leaves), 1.6 inches diameter and weighed
about 8 ounces each. The form shown with a crown of leaves is how it
is generally sold, but you'll notice the tip with the young more
tender leaves has been removed. It is sold separately as A-Choy (see
above). The older leaves still attached are like Romaine leaves but
tougher and more bitter, but they do stand up better to cooking. The
Chinese do not eat raw greens for reasons you'd probably rather not
Details and Cooking.
Tribute Vegetable -
[Gong Cai, Gongcai; Mountain Jellyfish, Sound Vegetable;
L. sativa var asparagina alt var augustana,
This is Stem Lettuce, shaved
and dried. It is called "Mountain Jellyfish" because it is crunchy,
like jellyfish, when rehydrated. "Sound Vegetable" comes from the
same crunchiness. "Tribute Vegetable" is because someone once gave
some to a Chinese emperor as tribute, and the emperor liked it. It
is much liked in stir fries, once rehydrated. The photo specimen was
purchased from a large Asian market in Los Angeles (Alhambra) for
2016 U.S. $0.50 per 6 ounce package (on sale - expect higher).
Details and Cooking.
Wild Lettuce -
[prickly lettuce, Lactuca serriola]
This is where it all came from, a wild plant with a bitter milky sap.
When the plant matures it will "bolt", sending up a central stalk
topped with a group of small dandelion-like flowers. The bitter sap
is a mild opiate, particularly when the lettuce bolts. The photo shows
leaves of very young plants, the leaf margins become deeply cut,
ragged and pointy looking.
While wild lettuce is much stronger, other loose-leaf lettuces have
similar properties. Some years back I observed that the loose-leaf
lettuce in a friend's garden had bolted. Connie remarked that it
wasn't as good as before but they were still using it. They were
also wondering why they were falling asleep right after their salad
(served at the end of dinner in their household).
My pigeons used to rip into the wild lettuce, then go and flake out
on the roof, often lying upside-down. Unfortunately they can't do that
anymore - there are too many hawks now.