Probably nothing is more important to a meal than salad, and in a salad, nothing is better than tender young lettuce (Latuca sativa), with its lively, wet crunch that contrasts with other foods.
It’s always refreshing, and the best lettuce comes with a distinct green, nutty flavor. Only a tiny minority of varieties produce lettuce like that, and any good new ones come and go from seed catalogs so quickly as to frustrate a gardener.
Certain superior heirlooms, however, are consistently available. They have both good flavor and good texture, from soft to crisp. Of the several dozen varieties I’ve grown over the years, I especially like three.
Among the looseleaf family, I always grow Oakleaf, whose foliage has the familiar wavy outline of its namesake. Some looseleaf varieties have curly, frilly, or blistered leaves with rough textures, but not Oakleaf.
Its open heads, like those of the rest of the looseleaf family, lend themselves to the repeated cutting of individual leaves as they grow and regrow. Ignoring that potential, I slice off the whole heads at the ground so as to have the tender, partly blanched inner leaves.
Oakleaf usefully withstands cold and light frost, although compared with other varieties it goes to seed more quickly in the heat. Italian Lingua di Canario and Catalogna are similar if not identical. A few newer Oakleaf cultivars I’ve tried have generally had darker green color and in some cases bigger heads, but they’re not obviously better.
I am impressed with the burgundy-spattered look of Flashy Green Butter Oak—red and variegated lettuces have been known for a very long time. All the Oakleaves seem reliable; they have good flavor and a tender, mild crunch.
The romaine family, also known as cos or long-leafed lettuce, is both flavorful and heat-tolerant. It’s sometimes said that romaine should have a subtle, refreshing bitterness, but in my northern climate, it’s no different from other varieties.
The French name Romaine, meaning “Roman,” apparently entered English after this lettuce passed from Italy through France, arriving at the papal court at Avignon in the fourteenth century.
My favorite romaine is also the most flavorful lettuce I grow: the handsome, red-speckled Forellenschuss, whose coloring suggests the speckled trout of its name. Weaver says it’s a dwarf form of Spotted Aleppo, which was carried from Syria to Europe in the eighteenth century.
For a salad, since I usually have an abundance of lettuce, I discard all romaine’s darker green outer leaves, which are somewhat firm and tough, and I cut out and discard the thicker ribs of the remaining leaves. They’re naturally somewhat blanched, and I like the lettucey flavor.
Butterheads, which include the varieties often called Boston in the US, form loosely closed, cabbagelike heads. In theory, butterheads have a buttery texture, but most of the ones I’ve grown have had limited flavor, and their leaves develop thick, brittle skeletons that give a dull, watery crunch not far from that of the insipid Iceberg.
(In fact, that’s a nineteenth-century heirloom, one of the big, tight crispheads, and some gardeners praise it. But when I grew Iceberg, it tasted just like the supermarket kind.)
Not every butterhead has a brittle crunch. My favorite of all lettuces is the Boston type named Tennis Ball (specifically, the black-seeded one sold by the Seed Savers Exchange), which dates back to at least the eighteenth century. It’s remarkable for having soft, thin leaves with the most velvety texture of any lettuce, and it has as much flavor as other similar lettuces, if not more. The variety is at its best soon after the heads have begun to form and before they grow at all tight.
Tennis Ball was named not just for its size, which may have increased through selection since the early days (the mature heads in my garden are nearly as large as the usual Boston), but for the firmness of the heads as well. In a salad, this lettuce needs a light dressing that won’t mask its delicate flavor, and because its texture is lost in a mix with other varieties, Tennis Ball is best on its own.
Good flavor and texture come not just from variety, but from age, climate, season, weather—from the soil with sufficient moisture and from somewhat cooler temperatures. Where it’s possible to grow lettuce outdoors in winter, the leaves turn leathery (they can be better than no lettuce at all), and in the mass market, such heads have particularly poor flavor. At the other seasonal extreme, summer drought prematurely ages