Now that summer is in full swing, it’s time to change up your veggie mindset. We’re moving on from steamy roasts and warming stews to fresh green salads, which can make for quite a lovely lunch on a not-so-lovely humid day. When many people think of lettuce leaves, they immediately think of crunchy romaine. While this choice makes a delicious base for a summer salad, it’s far from the only option in the lettuce family. The different varieties of greens are as diverse as all those winter citruses and types of rice—learning about their flavor profiles and textures before heading to the market will steer you away from having yet another #saddesklunch.
Let our leafy lettuce guide save your salads from sadness. You’re gonna love it. Promise.
Also called Lacinato Kale or Tuscan Kale, this lettuce originated in Tuscany, and is a staple of Italian cuisine. The leaves are a deep blue-green and quite sturdy—it’ll pair perfectly with creamy dressings and tons of toppings because this leaf won’t wilt easily. This particular type of kale can have a bitter taste when raw, so give your kale a little massage with lemon and olive oil before assembling your salad. Show your kale some love and reap delicious rewards. Our Kale Mac n’ Cheese is calling you.
Pro tip: You’ll want to cut the tough rib out of the center of each kale leaf before tearing or ribboning the leaves for your salad. The stems: not edible.
Though it comes from the same family as dinosaur kale, curly kale has a totally different flavor profile and texture than its dark, flat-leafed sib. Curly kale lives up to its name, with tightly curled, bright green leaves and a more bitter, spicy flavor than dinosaur kale. While curly kale can certainly be used in a raw salad, its structure and flavor also make it perfect for crunchy, savory homemade kale chips. Curly kale can also be used to beef up winter soups and stews (keep that one in your back pocket for later this year).
You’ll recognize Swiss chard at the market by its colorful stem, which can be red, purple, or rainbow in hue. The best part about Swiss chard is that you can use both the leaves and the stems in your cooking. Similar to kale, chard leaves are a bit tougher, with a mineral flavor, and its shape and flavor hold up well in a dressed salad. Go crazy and add it to your frittata or omelet to eveb out the rich flavors of cheesy eggs.
Pro tip: when raw, chard stems can be quite tough. Make sure to cut them into thin ribbons or strips before adding to your salad.
Arugula has a spicy, almost mustardy flavor, which balances well in salads with sweet elements like watermelon or figs, or rich, earthy cheeses like goat or Manchego. Arugula’s small, delicate leaves also make for easy preparation: no slicing or tearing necessary, just rinse and add to your salad or sandy. When using arugula as a salad base, make sure to use a lighter dressing, so as not to overwhelm the delicate leaves. You can also try adding it to a sandwich—this one will do you well.
Dandelion greens have a fairly sharp flavor, similar to arugula in texture and size. Dandelion greens are best in a simply dressed salad with light toppings to avoid weighing down the tender leaves. If you find these greens too bitter to use in a simple salad, try adding them to your next green smoothie for a spicy boost! If you hate it, you can always go back to classic spinach, NBD.
Butterhead lettuce (also called Boston or Bibb lettuce): those tender, glossy, light leaves that are as beautiful as they are delicious. If you’re not a big fan of the sharp bitter greens, become BFFs with these sweet leaves. Butterhead’s soft, large leaves are smoother than romaine or iceberg, making them the perfect green alternative to a burger bun or taco shell at your next barbecue. Make this Teriyaki Salmon dish, ASAP.
Of course, no lettuce guide would be complete without our reliable old friend, romaine. There’s a reason that romaine is so popular: it’s sturdy, crisp leaves have a fresh, clean taste that provides a neutral base for all the salads (all of them). Even though it’s a go-to, it still deserves some TLC. Next time you’re in the mood for a creamy Caesar salad, try your hand at making your own dressing—our recipe is seriously good. Maybe even better than one that comes from a bottle.