Food

In These Dark Days for Romaine, Which Lettuce Is Objectively the Best Lettuce?

A field of various lettuces.
Such an awful lot of temptation.
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The Great Romaine Crisis of 2018 rages on. Last Friday brought news of 14 more people and three more states affected by an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona, region, bringing the tally up to 98 people and 22 states respectively. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expecting more reports of illness since there’s a two-week delay between when a person falls ill and when they’re confirmed to be part of the outbreak. This particular strain of the bacteria also seems to be particularly nasty—according to WNEP, almost half of those reported ill have been hospitalized compared with the usual E. coli outbreak rate of about 30 percent.

But, as the old saying goes, the salad must go on. Some might be using the Great Romaine Crisis to eat a giant pretzel for lunch instead, to which I say more power to you. But for those dedicated to the roughage life, Slatesters have recommendations about which sorts of herbage salad lovers should get to know while they are remaining wary of romaine.

Kale

To anyone who regularly consumes salads containing lettuce that is not kale, I ask: Do you hate nutrients? Because kale is an antioxidant bomb, packed with vitamins C and A and God knows what other riches. Whereas most lettuces turn flimsy if you let them steep too long in dressing, kale is a vegetal superpower. It holds its shape. It gets more flavorful the longer it soaks. It’s the hardy stalwart to basic-B romaine and limp, frilly mixed greens. You may claim I have been brainwashed by the kale lobby, but I stand by it: There’s no lettuce tougher and more efficient than kale. —Features director Laura Bennett

Some kale leaves on a table.
Always holds its shape.
AnjelaGR/Thinkstock

Butter Lettuce

In researching the history of the best lettuce, which is butter lettuce, I learned that the lettuce currently known as butter is really just bibb, and was only named butter in order to give an enterprising but devious lettuce company the ability to market a “new” variety of lettuce. This is a shocking development, but still, butter lettuce is the best lettuce, because its sturdy yet silky leaves are tough enough to hold oil-based dressings quite well but soft enough to not make loud crunching noises in your ears when you are just trying to eat a nice salad and relax. Butter lettuce is strong and a little sweet, unlike limp and bitter mesclun, which is disgusting. Apparently butter lettuce is also the same as Boston lettuce, but I don’t know about all that.
Executive editor Allison Benedikt

A head of butter lettuce on a table.
Don’t worry, we can keep this quiet.
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Arugula

If you want to enjoy your salad, rather than feel like you’re diligently eating some fibrous water, embrace arugula. Yes, it’s bitter and spicy—that’s the point! Its flavor profile is perfectly augmented by the sweetness of balsamic vinegar, particularly white balsamic, and it also pairs brilliantly with a thickly grated parmesan (the best cheese for salads). Arugula makes salad something to crave rather than something to consume. Case in point: When I recently got out of the woods after several days of backpacking, the first thing I hunted down was an arugula salad. Plus, if you get in the habit of having arugula on hand as your main green, you can add a bright kick to almost any meal—throw some on top of rice and beans with sour cream, tuck it into an omelet, mix a handful into a warm bowl of pesto and let it wilt. It’s the freshly grated pepper of greens, and it belongs almost everywhere. —Science editor Susan Matthews

A bowl of arugula with parmesan shavings.
Admit it, you’ve been craving a little spice in your life.
wmaster890/Thinkstock

Iceberg

Are there fancier lettuces than iceberg? Yes. Are there lettuces with more complex flavors? Sure. If you’re hoping to impress your guests with your knowledge of special fancy lettuces, should you serve them a lettuce other than iceberg? Definitely. But is there a lettuce to which a delicious, thick, classic American dressing like ranch or Thousand Island or Russian clings more ardently than iceberg? Is there a lettuce that more reliably delivers a textural range from crisp to crunchy? Is there a lettuce that adds a more satisfyingly cool top note to a hamburger? The questions answer themselves. —Senior editor and Slate Plus editorial director Gabriel Roth

A head of iceberg lettuce, cut in half.
Creamy and American-style.
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Herbs

Skip the lettuce and use herbs instead. Herbs provide stronger and more varied flavors, and, due to their smaller size, play well alongside other flavorful champs like toasted nuts and shaved cheese, and seasonal vegetables like asparagus or artichokes. Parsley, mint, and basil are also delicious mixed with grains like quinoa and freekeh. You can grow these herbs yourself, or, if you’re like me, you can just pat yourself on the back for using the whole bunch of parsley before it goes bad for once. For lots of great recipes to get you started, check out Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons cookbook. —Slate Group president Dan Check

A bunch of parsley in a jar.
More than a garnish.
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Spinach

ArugulaSwiss chard. KALE. There is a bounty of cultural cache growing in the vegetable aisle these days. But has the Trump era taught us nothing about the hazards of celebrity? Let’s put an end to the glorification of greens and return to our roots: spinach. Calm and capable, spinach should be the green of our time. It’s already had its cultural moment, which is appealing to those who enjoy vintage greens. But more importantly, spinach is reliable: It’s widely available and almost always triple-washed.

And to those critics who would say spinach is boring? I say, Yes, and! Yes, spinach is bland—and it’s the perfect vehicle for your zesty balsamic vinaigrette. Tasteless? Sure! What other leafy green blends so well in your power smoothie? Or wilts with perfection in your three-egg omelet? Indeed, what other green but spinach can be used with such versatility in all three square meals of the day? None, I say. And then I repeat myself because I have a mouthful of spinach. None. —Audience engagement editor Evan Mackinder

A basket of spinach leaves.
So what if I’m a little vanilla? Vanilla gets it done.
ehaurylik/Thinkstock

Endive, frisée, and their bitter cousins

The role of a salad green is to be a sturdy matrix of crunch that can stand up to an assertive vinaigrette. For this there are no greater greens than endive, frisée (aka “curly endive”), and their bitter cousins like escarole and chicory. They keep their shape and, in a good salad, bite back at the vinaigrette’s richness just the right amount. In particular, I would crown frisée, which manages to remain the star of the world’s best salad, salade lyonnaise, despite the presence of poached eggs and bacon. —Senior video producer Jeffrey Bloomer

A bowl with endives.
Don’t be bitter, baby. That’s my job.
pilipphoto/Thinkstock

Power Greens

A carefully composed salad is a beautiful thing, to be sure. But mostly, I view edible leaves as a means to an end: nutrition, weight maintenance, general virtuousness—the kinds of salutary things a friend of mine captures in the quip, “Girl, you need a salad and nap!” It’s in that spirit that I recommend a boxed mix called “Power Greens,” comprising baby spinach, red and green chard, and baby kale. Habitually, unthinkingly, organically toss a handful of this right-on roughage with your favorite homemade vinaigrette (or into a soup or rice pilaf or whatnot—it’s all delicate enough to wilt), and any plate becomes a source of vitality and pride.
—Associate editor J. Bryan Lowder

A salad mix in a plastic shell.
Don’t you find power … intoxicating?
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