It's always smart to stock iceberg lettuce for sandwiches and salads, but don't be so fast to use any vegetable without giving it a good wash. Most vegetables are easy to simply rinse under running water, but leafy greens are a little bit different — so what's the right way to wash iceberg lettuce?
Lettuce: Great Taste, Great Nutrition
Although iceberg lettuce is often considered the least of the leafy greens — spinach and romaine are much more powerful, nutritionally speaking — it's not at all bad for you. The USDA list a cup of shredded iceberg lettuce as having about 10 calories with only 2 grams of carbohydrates and a little more than a half-gram of protein. It's not a substantial source of many vitamins and minerals, although it does have about 14 percent of your daily needed value of vitamin K.
However, like all vegetables, there is some health concern if you eat it unwashed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration explains that produce can just as easily cause foodborne illness as meat or poultry products. That's because when produce is growing in the field, it can easily be contaminated by passing animals, harmful substances in dirt or water, and even poor hygiene among the workers. As the FDA further explains on another part of its site, each plant gets handled by a crew member during harvest.
How to Wash Iceberg Lettuce
Here's how you can wash your iceberg lettuce to ensure that it's safe for consumption and protect yourself from getting sick:
- Wash your hands: The FDA recommends washing your hands with hot water and soap for 20 seconds before and after all food preparation.
- Check the package: If you bought pre-cut iceberg lettuce, it might not need a lettuce cleaner. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that some bagged greens will be labeled "ready to eat." However, if you're working with an intact head of lettuce or the package doesn't say otherwise, just assume you need to wash it.
- Say nope to soap: Despite the marketing out there, you can use plain water to rinse off your vegetables. The FDA emphasizes that you should never use bleach or detergents. Even commercial vegetable washes aren't the best option. The Colorado State University Extension explains that these have not been studied enough to standardize their efficacy or to understand the safety of any residue they might leave on vegetables.
- Prepare the lettuce: Before you wash your iceberg lettuce, be sure to examine it. The Produce for a Better Health Foundation recommends selecting a head of lettuce with fresh, clean outer leaves and compact inner leaves. Cut away any damaged areas on the leaves or skin, per the recommendation of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Discard any outer leaves that are torn or bruised.
- Give the leaves a soak: After you have rinsed the head under cold running water, remove the core and chop the leaves. Colorado State University Extension says to immerse the leaves in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes to loosen the dirt. You can add vinegar to the water bath as a simple and safe lettuce cleaner if you wish — use a half-cup of vinegar per 1 cup of water.
- Dry it off: After you wash your iceberg lettuce, be sure to blot with a towel or dry it with a salad spinner so that your leaves aren't too damp.
Using Your Washed Lettuce
You can now use your iceberg lettuce for sandwiches and salads. If you're not ready to use iceberg lettuce right way, hold off on the washing process. As Colorado State University Extension explains, washing produce before you store it could encourage bacterial growth and make it spoil faster.
Once the lettuce leaves are completely dry, store them in an airtight container like a plastic bag and use them within one week, per the recommendation of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
Finally, the University of Illinois Extension discourages storing lettuce with produce like apples, pears and bananas, which release ethylene gas. This natural ripening agent will cause the lettuce to turn brown and decay too quickly, so you won't have iceberg lettuce for your sandwiches or salads for very long. If you notice the lettuce starts to look slimy or develops black spots, throw it away.
- FDA: “Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidelines for the Lettuce and Leafy Greens Supply Chain”
- USDA: “Iceberg Lettuce”
- FDA: “7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits, Vegetables”
- Colorado State University Extension: “Guide to Washing Fresh Produce”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Washing Leafy Greens”
- Produce for a Better Health Foundation: “Iceberg Lettuce”
- University of Illinois Extension: “Lettuce”