Do you really need to wash lettuce before eating it? Experts weigh in.

Experts say the general best practice is to always wash lettuce before serving it. Here's why.

Is it safe to eat unwashed lettuce? Experts explain why it's important to take proper precautions when it comes to leafy greens in the kitchen. (Photo: Getty)
Is it safe to eat unwashed lettuce? Experts explain why it's important to take proper precautions when it comes to leafy greens in the kitchen. (Photo: Getty)

Home cooks try to fit in lots of fresh and leafy greens during the week. But between rising costs and ingredient scarcity, sometimes it's hard to come by that go-to iceberg or romaine for lunchtime salads and wraps.

If you do come across the lettuce you need for all those healthy dishes, chances are time is still of the essence. You may have just a few minutes to pull lunch together during a busy work or school day, and it may seem that something like washing all those greens is an unnecessary additional step standing in the way of lunch.

But is it unnecessary? Do we need to wash those greens before eating them? According to the experts, absolutely.

Why it's important to wash lettuce before eating it

Field-grown leafy greens, including romaine and iceberg lettuce, should be thoroughly washed before consuming. If we want to keep things safe and healthy, that is. "Harmful bacteria can live on lettuce as it's being harvested and going through the packaging process, so it's best to wash it right before eating to help rinse off any surface dirt," says Katie Sabatini, a dietician who works as food safety and quality assurance manager at Little Leaf Farms.

The general best practice is to always wash lettuce before serving it. "Contaminants range from pesticides to sand and mud," says Jay Weinstein, chef-instructor of plant-based culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Lettuce from the farmer's market tends to sequester more grit than factory-farmed varieties."

Agricultural chemicals can sometimes fly under the radar, but they are still there and very dangerous. "Invisible, odorless and tasteless by design, I wouldn't risk swallowing them just to save a few minutes in the kitchen," says Weinstein.

What about pre-washed lettuce?

Buying bags of pre-washed and pre-torn lettuce can be a big time-saver. But can you feel safe trusting they've been well-washed and are good to go? That depends on if you are buying from somewhere you trust. "This is up to the individual, but I personally don't [unless it's a brand I know and trust]," says Weinstein. "I buy from reputable producers, like the locally-farmed Satur Farms brand from Long Island, and eat it right from the package. Liability is so high that they have more to lose than consumers. But I respect skeptics."

How to wash lettuce

Don't be in denial: Washing the whole head ignores hidden dirt. "Tear or cut the leaves before you wash the lettuce," says Weinstein. "The coziest place for contaminants to reside is deep inside, where leaves meet core."

Steps for washing lettuce:

  • Start by washing your own hands. There's no point in washing that lettuce if you're going to get it dirty by touching it. "I recommend washing your hands for twenty seconds with soap and warm water before handling your lettuce to reduce the risk of bacteria spreading from your hands to your greens," says Sabatini.

  • Next, cut your lettuce. All types of lettuce will need to be washed, but whether you tear or knife-cut will depend on the variety. "Crisp, tight head lettuces like romaine and iceberg look better knife-cut, whereas leaf lettuces like Boston Bibb or oak leaf look best hand-torn," says Weinstein. "Be sure to wash both styles before consuming."

  • Then, prep your station. "​​Fill two large vessels with cold tap water," says Weinstein, adding that the outside bowl of a lettuce spinner is a good size for this task.

  • The temperature of the wash water also plays a role when it comes to food safety and quality. "The tender leaves of lettuce are more susceptible to adverse quality effects from wash water that is too warm, which can include wilting, scalding, limpness and increased loss of freshness among others," says Sabatini.

  • Now grab that lettuce. "Fully submerge [cut or torn lettuce leaves] in the first container of water," says Weinstein. "Agitate vigorously, using loose fingers to avoid bruising leaves."

  • The rest is a bit of a process, but easy once you get into the flow. "Lift lettuce from the water and allow it to drip-drain before transferring it to the second basin and repeating the process," says Weinstein. Feel the bottom of the vessel for any grit. If you find any, then repeat the process until the vessel is grit-less.

  • Spin the leaves to dry them. "A lettuce spinner uses centrifugal force to gently eliminate residual water," explains Weinstein. "Wet lettuce dilutes dressing. If that's not enough reason to spin, consider that wet lettuce spoils more quickly." ​If you don't have a salad spinner, Weinstein says to "pouch the lettuce into a towel or clean pillowcase and whip it over your head like you're winding up a slingshot."

​Bonus tip: Washing revives sleepy leaves. "If your greens have started to wilt but still have a spark of life in them, they will drink in water and crisp back up," Weinstein shares.

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