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What is Bibb Lettuce?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bibb lettuce, also known in some places as Boston, butterhead, or limestone lettuce, is a leafy green that is cultivated as a food source. It is known for its distinctive creamy flavor and crisp, crunchy texture. Bibb leaves tend to be very tender and spoil easily, and they are best eaten fresh. This type of lettuce grows well in most places, but can be hard to transport because of how easily it bruises and spoils. It is often more expensive than other lettuce varieties for this reason, but cooks prize it for its superior flavor and are often willing to splurge in order to add it to their meals or signature dishes.

Primary Characteristics

Head lettuces, including Bibb, grow in a rounded cluster that sits low to the ground and are about the size of an adult human head. Its leaves tend to be clustered loosely together, and it transitions from a creamy pale green when it sprouts into a bright vibrant hue by the time it is ready to harvest. Sometimes, the leaves have dark red or purple edging — but not always. Edging is most common when the lettuce is grown in warm temperatures.

The leaves of Bibb lettuce tend to be crisp and will hold their shape without wilting for up to a week after they have been cut. They are often said to have a rich, almost buttery flavor that is unlike other lettuces. Most of the taste is concentrated in the leaf stems, or “ribbing,” which gives the leaves their distinctive crunchy texture and, in many ways, holds the shape of the head. Cooks who remove the rib often miss a lot of the reasons why this variety is so popular.

Popularity in the Kitchen

Cooks use this type of lettuce most frequently for salads. Its mild flavor makes it an excellent accompaniment to many different flavors, but some of the most popular pairings include fish, particularly tuna and salmon, and fruits like apple and mandarin orange. The leaves can be used as a base to raw vegetable salads and can also be mixed with other greens to create a dynamic mix. Whole leaves are sometimes used on sandwiches, too, particularly those incorporating bold flavors like mustard and chutney.

Care and Handling

Preparing Bibb lettuce requires a gentle touch because the leaves, though stiff, can bruise easily. Bruised leaves are not necessarily bad to eat, but they don’t usually taste as fresh or have quite the same flavor. Most cooks treat heads gingerly, removing leaves one at a time and rinsing them in a shallow pot of water rather than holding them under a faucet. They should be patted dry, then either used immediately or kept refrigerated. Salad experts often recommend layering washed lettuce leaves between clean tea towels in the refrigerator’s crisper in order to preserve their taste and texture.

Where to Find It

Bibb lettuce is widely available in most places thanks in part to how easily it grows in moderate climates. Its ideal conditions are generally cool and somewhat moist, which makes most of Western Europe and North America ideal growing territory. The lettuce takes it name from Jack Bibb, a horticulturist who is credited with being the first to grow this variety on his farm in the U.S. state of Kentucky. Its popularity has spread globally since then.

Gardeners often have good luck growing heads in temperature-controlled greenhouses, as well, which not only expands the growing area but usually also extends the season. While heads grown naturally tend to be ready for harvest in the late fall, indoor growing can usually be manipulated so that the vegetable is actually mature at various points year-round.

Most specialty or organic shops stock this green, and it may also be available at larger grocery chains depending on the region and time of year. Bibb lettuce does not last very long on the shelf, though, and it tends to be quite expensive. For these reasons, grocers are often hesitant to stock much of it if there is not a lot of demand. Customers who are interested in it can often place special requests or orders from local stores.

Common Substitutions

People who can’t find Bibb lettuce in their area can often recreate the basic look and taste with common relatives, particularly summercrisp. Cooks also sometimes look to lettuce blends to capture some of the essential characteristics of the Bibb variety. Mixing the sharper-flavored romaine with the mild, milky-colored iceberg can lead to good results, for instance. Incorporating other greens entirely, such as celery leaf, is also an option.

Health Properties

Bibb lettuce is very low in calories and contains no fat. It is generally considered a “diet neutral” food for people watching their weight since it doesn’t really have anything harmful or fattening in it. In fact, it actually contains trace elements of some important minerals, like folate, vitamin A, and dietary fiber.

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Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By accordion — On Jul 19, 2010

Bibb lettuce is just one of a lot of varieties that are under-appreciated in North America. It is much healthier than iceberg lettuce, the usual fast food and other restaurant staple, and tastes fresher and less heavy than the dark green romaine lettuce, a common healthy option.

By Denha — On Jul 19, 2010

Like most lettuces, bibb lettuce is easy to grow in a garden. Like the article states, it takes less than two months to grow, and one packet of seeds can provide enough for many salads or other dishes.

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