Of Culinary Lore and Exceptional Marketing

Quite possibly my favorite thing about writing this column is the mountain of reader feedback it produces. I have the best readers in the universe, too. Nearly every letter turns into a love fest, which charges my batteries, making me love my readers all the more.

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Do you recall the letter from Pat, who complained of her lettuce turning rusty? I responded that the rust colored stains on lettuce are harmless evidence of the natural breakdown process and indicate that the produce is not exactly fresh. The brown edges and spots can be cut away, leaving the rest of the lettuce perfectly edible.

Well, that question together with my response brought a tsunami of input from readers insisting that Pat’s problem is that she is cutting her lettuce with a metal knife.

Jenny wrote, “While working in a restaurant, a decade ago, I learned to either cut the lettuce with a plastic knife or tear it. I do not know the science behind why metal causes the lettuce to brown but my lettuce stays fresher looking days longer since I stopped using metal knives.”

While this might sound like a plausible explanation for why lettuce turns brown, I’m sorry to tell Jenny and the dozens of others who wrote about using a plastic knife instead of metal to keep lettuce fresher longer—it’s a myth. There is no truth to the rumor.

If you believe your lettuce stays fresh longer when you cut it with a plastic knife, the truth is that it would have the same outcome using a metal knife. The enemy of lettuce is time plus oxygen, not metal. Exposing the inside of a head of lettuce to oxygen is going to hasten its breakdown, whether you cut it with plastic, metal or a laser beam. It’s going to turn brown.

Personally, I blame Tupperware parties for this myth. Back in the 1970s the company came out with a little plastic knife or “corer” that it included with its Lettuce Crisper. The instructions were to cut out the heart of the head of lettuce first, insert a plastic pointy thing where the heart used to be, then store it in the crisper.

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Tupperware dealers were instructed to tell party attendees that cutting lettuce with metal would make it turn brown and to combat this horrible waste of money, they needed this plastic coring knife-like gizmo. I believed, I bought and so did millions of others. And here we are all these years later—many still believing this vintage piece of culinary lore. I’m convinced it was nothing more than a brilliant marketing ploy.

There are lots of ways to retard the lettuce dying process so that it stays fresher longer. Wait to wash it until you’re ready to use it; store it in a sealed glass container; wrap it in a paper towel to wick away moisture; keep a Bluapple ethylene gas absorber in the produce bin of your refrigerator—all excellent tips with provable results. And the mother of all tactics that will keep produce fresh—at least long enough to use it up—is to vacuum seal it by removing all of the oxygen, which is the arch enemy of fresh produce.

And with that, I’ll close by encouraging you to write to me. I enjoy knowing your feedback, but most of all I thrive on just knowing that you’re there.

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8 replies
  1. Emily Booth
    Emily Booth says:

    I rinse fruit and vegetables as soon as I can after I get home from shopping. I soak and rinse the romaine in cold water, shake it off and wrap it in a 100% cotton large white kitchen utility cloth (Target) and store it in the vegetable bin. I eat salads every day and this works for me. If the lettuce looks wilted, I will sometimes refresh it in water if it’s not too bad. I haven’t tried the ethylene gas absorber yet but it’s in my Amazon shopping basket.

    Reply
    • albeta rodriguez
      albeta rodriguez says:

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  2. Gehugh
    Gehugh says:

    When I was in food service eons ago, it was common practice to re-use chopped lettuce into the next day’s salad bar, etc. A product called fruit fresh was used to bathe the rusting lettuce before putting it out. To this day, if I see rusty lettuce when dining in a restaurant, I will send it back and commonly I will request ‘no browned lettuce’ when ordering a salad. I almost always get a fresh lettuce salad. Brown lettuce says ‘old lettuce’ to me. I do not have the problem at home because I eat purchase lettuce quickly or what I grow does not have time to get old. Of course any old produce, if not eaten, goes into the ‘for stock’ container in the freezer or into the compost.

    Reply
  3. Pat Collins
    Pat Collins says:

    The first time I heard about not using metal a metal knife on lettuce was in the 60’s on a television show (can’t remember the name) when Mr. French told the twins (one was named Jody) about it. Wish I could remember more about it.

    Reply
    • Greta
      Greta says:

      Brian Keith was the dad and Buffy and Jody were the twins with Cissy as the big sister. The name of the show was “Family Affair” and Mr. French took care of the children. It was a fun show. 🙂 Thanks for letting me walk down memory lane.

      Reply
  4. Tesa Gammon
    Tesa Gammon says:

    Lettuce rusting when cut with a metal knife used to be true when knives were made from carbon steel- now that knives are made with stainless steel the problem we it rusting lettuce has been eliminated

    Reply
  5. Emjay
    Emjay says:

    To keep my lettuce from getting rusty, I spin it dry and use green bags. Works well and is ready for consumption for longer than leaving it in regular plastic.

    Reply

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