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How to buy the best salad greens at the farmers market and grocery store

Believe it or not, sometimes buying wilted greens is OK.
When you shop the farmers market, let your eyes do the work and trust what looks interesting and beautiful.
When you shop the farmers market, let your eyes do the work and trust what looks interesting and beautiful.Kara Birnbaum / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Sometimes preparing a salad at home can be intimidating. How can one master a restaurant-quality bowl of green goodness in your own kitchen? Let's begin at square one: how to shop for leafy lettuces and greens.

There's a lot to consider when you head to the grocery store or farmers market, depending on where one lives and what time of year it is. Do you opt for rich, hearty kale or supple butter lettuce? Bagged lettuce or fresh greens without no packaging? And most importantly, how can you tell that you're selecting the freshest greens of the bunch?

To learn from an expert, TODAY Food spoke to Abra Berens, the James Beard Award-nominated executive chef of Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, who sources ingredients from the restaurant's organic farm. Berens authored "Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables" in 2019 and will release her second cookbook, "Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds and Legumes," in October.

When Berens is not harvesting salad greens straight from the ground, here are her top tips to buying them from the grocery store or farm stand.

If shopping a farm market, ask the vendor questions

One of the best parts of having access to a farm stand or farmers market is that the vendor there has likely either grown the produce personally or is well informed about the farm's harvest.

"The most important thing to do at a farmers market/stand is to ask the vendor what they are excited about," Berens told TODAY. "Tell them what you're making or looking for and then listen to what they have to say. If the lettuce is bitter because of a recent heatwave, only they will know, and it doesn't matter how good it looks if the flavor isn't there."

Know the signs of decay

Whether you're at a local farm stand or a chain super market, the best way to survey greens is to know the signs of decay.

According to Berens, as salad greens age past their prime, they begin to get some brown or slimy spots, yellowing leaves or even a bit of a swampy smell (anyone who's left a plastic box of greens in their fridge a bit too long will know that familiar stink).

If you see any of these on the lettuce or leafy green of choice, keep looking until you find one that's free and clear of red (well, brown or yellow) flags.

Sometimes wilted is OK

Now that you know how to avoid decaying produce, it's also helpful to know that a limp leaf or lettuce isn't necessarily something to avoid.

"Most farmers markets/farm stands don't have refrigeration, so expect the greens to be a bit wilty especially if it is hot out. There's a big difference between wilty and rotty. If greens are wilty they can be refreshed (just like the rest of us) with a 20 minute dunk in some cool water. If they are rotty, there's very little that can be done," Berens told TODAY.

A nice dip in some water does sound appealing!

Go for variety and visually striking greens

When Berens shops the farmers market, she lets her eyes do the work and trusts what looks interesting and beautiful.

"Local growers are often bringing rare varieties to market that I can't get in the store," the chef told TODAY. "My favorite salads have a good variety of greens of all colors and then very simple accompaniments."

Valerie Bertinelli's Misticanza Salad

For this reason, when she's shopping at the grocery store, Berens prioritizes buying from the sections where the greens are refrigerated and exposed (not packaged). She prefers a few different varieties of salad greens, chicories (like radicchio, endive or frisee) and less conventional additions like shaved red cabbage, sprouts and spinach. She then washes, cuts and blends them at home for her own mixed green salad base.

"This helps save on non-recyclable plastics. Look for heads that feel heavy in your hand and don't be surprised if the outside leaves are a little beat up. As long as the inside of the head feels firm, there will be lots of food there," Berens told TODAY.

Boxed or bagged? Check the bottom

Berens rarely purchases boxed or bagged greens but if she does, she opts for cut greens like arugula, baby kale, or spinach, not lettuce.

Because moisture in a pre-packaged bag or box of lettuce or leafy greens falls to the bottom, Berens advises turning the box upside down or holding it up to get a good look at the bottom. It can be common for the greens on top to look fresh, dry and verdant but the bottom to become "a sludgy mess" from all that trapped moisture.

If the greens below look good enough to eat, you're good to go.

Sale produce: "Buy it up if you can eat it up"

"Often produce is on sale because it is getting on in age or the vendor has a ton of it," Berens told TODAY.

To weed out whether it's beginning to age, has aged too much or is from a surplus, check for those decay signs. If it doesn't have any, go for it. Even if it's beginning to age, it can still be delicious. Sale prices can be helpful for food budgeting, so if there's just one small part beginning to yellow, that can easily be ripped off and the rest can be salvaged. But don't expect to let it sit in the fridge for two weeks without going bad.

"Buy it up if you can eat it up," Berens said.

Spicy Caesar Salad

Get to know your greens

Different types of lettuces and greens like kale or arugula possess characteristics that help shoppers determine the best pick. Here, Berens breaks down what to look for in some of the more common salad green varieties.

Romaine

"Look for firm, tight heads. If the heads are super loose it can be a sign that the plant was going to bolt and will be bitter. I also (gently) pull back a few leaves to check for any rotten spots on the inside. It should look like the best caesar salad you've ever been served and make you want to eat it," she said.

Look for firm, tight heads when shopping for romaine lettuce.Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Kale

Firmer leaves are best and it's OK if they're a bit wilty. "Often kale is not bagged and so is liable to get wind-whipped by the refrigeration fans. That's not a big deal, but yellowing or overly soft leaves mean it doesn't have long, Berens advised. "Also, kale usually has a naturally occurring waxiness, so if the water is beading up on the leaves that's usually a good sign that it is healthy."

Look for firm leaves with no yellowing when shopping for kale. Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Butter lettuce

"I like to look for a heavy, tight head because it means there's a lot of food in there. Looser heads often mean that the leaves are bigger but fewer of them. I also like butter lettuce that has some changes in color (light and dark coloring) because it often means there is more flavor there," she specified. The hydroponic heads with the roots attached can have a far more mild flavor. Berens leans towards those for recipes like lettuce wraps but steers clear for salads where the greens need to shine.

For salads, Berens looks for "butter lettuce that has some changes in color (light and dark coloring) because it often means there is more flavor there."Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Arugula

Arugula gets yellow and bruises as it ages and will start to break down, especially if packed tightly in a container. "Arugula (and watercress) are the sort of leafy greens that make me want to eat it. If I'm not drawn to it instinctually, I usually pass," she said."

Avoid arugula that's bruised or has turned yellow.Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Baby lettuces

Oftentimes at the store, baby lettuces are pre-packed. Similar to head lettuces or other cut greens like arugula and spinach, check for slimy spots on all sides, especially on the bottom of the package. Avoid packaging where the greens look wet or densely packed because it often leads to premature decay.

When shopping for packaged baby lettuces, avoid greens that look wet or densely packed because it often leads to premature decay.Kara Birnbaum / TODAY

Local versus imported

"I'm hard pressed to buy imported greens. We don't have great ways to track labor rights in other countries and so I'd rather buy domestically where U.S. regulation ensures some measure of worker protection. We can always do better but that is a starting point," Berens commented. So if you're in an area where the grocery store or market labels produce from a nearby town or state, it can be a great choice that ensures the journey of your salad was well regulated and fresh before it hits your dinner bowl.

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