This Is How to Tell If Lettuce Is Bad

Published Categorized as Food
Lettuce gone badberna_rikur /Depositphotos

Ever been in a situation where you didn’t know if your lettuce was bad or not? (Rhetorical question, we know…)

Lettuce: it’s delicious, it’s nutritious, it’s affordable, and it goes with just about everything. Seriously, what’s not to love about it?!

A leafy green that’s particularly good in salads, but also in burgers and submarine sandwiches, lettuce is one of those vegetables that come in many shapes and forms.

There’s Iceberg lettuce, Romaine lettuce, Boston lettuce, Bibb lettuce, Butterhead lettuce, Red Leaf lettuce, Green Leaf lettuce, and the list most probably doesn’t end there.

What do they all have in common? As fresh as you buy them, if you don’t eat them in time, all varieties of lettuce will eventually spoil. And, when that happens, they may—or may not—be safe to eat. So here’s how to tell.

How Long Does Lettuce Last?

Exactly how long lettuce lasts depends on whether it is kept whole, cut into, or sliced. The guidelines we will share with you below apply to most cases:

Refrigerated and stored at high humidity in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, a whole head of lettuce will generally keep for 7-10 days. Leafy greens need room to breathe, so it’s a good idea to ensure the drawer isn’t too full.

Chopped lettuce will keep for up to a week in the fridge as long as it’s sealed in a ziplock bag or a food storage container lined with paper towels to absorb the excess moisture, a method described in great detail by the stunning Six Clever Sisters.

Remember that these are only guidelines. Sometimes, lettuce does not keep that long—no matter how well you store it. Other times, a head of lettuce will far exceed these estimates for no apparent reason.

Ah, the great mystery of life… or perhaps of food storage?

How to Tell If Lettuce Has Gone Bad

The best way to determine if most foods are spoiled is to do use your senses: sight, smell, touch, and, in case you’re still unconvinced that the lettuce has gone bad, taste.

As lettuce starts to spoil, it will slowly but surely change its color from green to yellowish, and then to brown. Can’t-miss signs of spoilage are moisture, sliminess, and mushiness. (Surprisingly to many, moisture is the enemy of lettuce as far as shelf life is concerned.)

For the same reasons, if you buy lettuce that’s been pre-washed and sliced, but hasn’t been given the time that it needs to dry properly, it may spoil and lose its freshness much faster than it normally would.

When the head of lettuce gets all limp and floppy—and parts of it have turned brown or, worse, black—then you know for sure that it’s time to throw it in the trash.

Even if it doesn’t get that far… if you taste spoiled lettuce, you may taste a very spicy and overly soft leaf with a mushy texture. You may also have a terrible taste that leaves a smell in your nose that won’t go away. In such a case, spit the lettuce out.

Can You Eat Spoiled Lettuce?

Never eat spoiled lettuce. Pathogenic bacteria may have grown to dangerous levels inside it and, once you ingest the lettuce, can make you sick with a foodborne illness.

It’s a common misconception that pathogenic bacteria are mostly found in meat, and that product is generally harmless. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw lettuce can be a common source of E. coli (Escherichia coli).

If you suspect that a head of lettuce in your fridge has spoiled, err on the side of caution and discard it immediately. That way, no one else in your household will make the mistake of eating it—a mistake that can have serious consequences on their health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also estimate that approximately one in five Americans contract a foodborne illness each year. Of them, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Needless to say, you don’t want yourself or a member of your family to be anywhere near that statistic.

Will Cutting Away the Spoiled Parts Work?

You can salvage bruised lettuce by peeling away the top one or two layers and using up the rest. However, once the lettuce goes bad, cutting away the spoiled parts won’t make it any safer to eat.

As the lettuce rots, whatever bacteria are on it are left to reproduce. Those bacteria not only grow in count but produce toxins as they feast on the nutrients in the lettuce. At best, those toxins can give you a really bad case of stomach ache. At worst, they can give you food poisoning.

It’s admirable that you want to minimize food waste as we all should. That being said, is it really worth risking your health for a plate of salad?

How to Store Lettuce for Maximum Freshness

Whole heads of lettuce are best stored in the crisper drawer of your fridge, with the humidity setting set to high to keep it nice and crisp on the outside.

As explained by Taste of Home, the high humidity setting is ideal for anything that wilts or that’s ethylene-sensitive. This includes asparagus, broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, parsley, squash, and others, to name a few.

Sliced lettuce needs to be protected from exposure to air and from excess moisture, so it is best to wrap it in saran wrap, throw it in a ziplock bag, or put it in a food storage container with the lid shut.

For maximum storage life, add in a paper towel or two to soak up the excess moisture—and change those towels every one or two days.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.