In a perfect world, every time you made a salad, you’d begin by strolling to your garden, where you’d harvest several different varieties of crisp, mature lettuce heads. Then you’d carefully disassemble each one, saving only the most pristine and tender leaves, which you’d individually wash—several times—before gently spinning dry and dressing with your finest olive oil, a few drops of mellow wine vinegar, and a sprinkle of flaky salt.
Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. The quotidian act of making a salad for most Americans now means tearing open a bag of spring mix, cracking a box of baby spinach, or popping a single-serving Chicken Caesar Bistro Bowl. Last year, packaged salads were a nearly $5 billion domestic industry. At my local Safeway, the cooler displaying pre-cut lettuce and greens dwarfs the head lettuce section by several times over. Confine yourself solely to the Taylor Farms Chopped Salad line of salad kits (there are many other brands), and you could eat a different salad for lunch every day for the entire month of February, from Asiago Kale to Thai Chili Mango.
How did we get here?
The epicurean origins of salad mixes
Salad mixes are actually a fairly new product in the United States, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. By most accounts, the movement from head lettuce to mixes began on the cutting edge of American food culture at that time: the movement to eat local. High-end farm-to-table restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Genoa in Portland, Oregon, and the Quilted Giraffe in New York all began to advance the idea that salad could be much more than iceberg into the mainstream cultural consciousness of Americans.
From there, the trend spread to farmers markets and natural food stores. Jeff Fairchild, a buyer at Organically Grown Company who’s worked in produce for more than 40 years, remembers the first time he saw pre-washed salad mix hit the shelves in the late 1980s or early 1990s at Nature’s, a chain of now-closed natural grocery stores in Portland. A small local grower had started offering bulk mesclun mix at the then-princely sum of $7 per pound—wholesale. “I remember thinking, who’s going to buy this? It’s absolute heresy when you can buy a head of lettuce for a dollar,” said Fairchild. Yet it sold. Fairchild even found that he liked it, too. “It had a different flavor component than leaf lettuce,” he said.
One of the early salad mix pioneers was Frank Morton, who started growing vegetables on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State in 1983. It was tough going at first. “I’d been selling produce to the local store, and I could tell that wasn’t going to cut it, so I was sort of looking for a niche,” said Morton. He credits another Seattle-area farmer and food advocate, Mark Musick, with introducing him to the idea that you could build a business on bags full of leaves. Musick had carved out a niche selling foraged salad mixes filled with edible flowers, dandelions, chickweed, lambs’ quarter, amaranth, and more to high-end restaurants in Seattle and farther afield, including Chez Panisse.
How’d he get such a delicate product to such distant markets? Morton wondered. Musick openly shared his technique: Rather than deliver his special blend personally, he wrapped the greens in a towel, put them in plastic bags, and dropped them in the overnight mail. “That is so brilliant,” Morton remembers thinking. “I could grow the product, but how could I get it to market? Mark figured that out and he told me how, and that was the biggest gift. Suddenly, distance was no problem.”
Soon, Morton was shipping boxes of salad mix to restaurants across the country. Each was painstakingly assembled by hand from as many as 10 different plant families ranging from lettuce and arugula to mint, basil, and mustard—leaves and flowers. That range, including a few leaves of epazote per pound, transformed a salad from everyday food to something that made diners sit straight up in their seats and finally notice the plants on their plate. To help servers who couldn’t tell a chervil leaf from a mustard floral shoot, every box included an identification key with a leaf or flower of every species in the mix Scotch taped to a labeled piece of paper.
While Chez Panisse may have been responsible for making mesclun mix inseparable from the notion of California cuisine in many people’s minds, Morton suspects Musick may have had something to do with the proliferation of salad mix growers in California, too. “Mark was selling salad greens to Alice Waters at Chez Panisse before I went to visit him…Alice Waters let other people know in California what Mark was doing. Those people went to Mark and got the idea. I don’t have any doubt in my mind,” said Morton.
The big business of little leaves
What began as a high-end product inspired by European salad traditions and farm-to-table fine-dining became something else when it encountered two powerful forces: industrial agriculture focused on scale, and consumers focused on convenience—the ethos Fairchild describes as “I just want to rip open a bag and some pouches, dump it together, and call it salad.” Today, lettuce represents $1 out of every $5 worth of vegetables and melons sold in the United States. Trevor Suslow, Cooperative Extension Specialist Emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, says packaged salads now outsell head lettuce by a factor of at least two to one, and the gap is getting wider every year.
Salad mixes of today bear little resemblance to Morton’s handmade collages of botanical treasures. Rather than mature greens harvested at just the right moment, processors and packers quickly pivoted to baby greens, which are cute, tender, and—depending on your perspective—somewhere between mild and tasteless. “A seedling is not mature enough to have flavor,” says Morton. Only with maturity comes sweetness, bitterness, and that satisfying midrib crunch.
But mature lettuces just couldn’t compete with the economics of baby greens. “You can grow baby spinach in 21 days,” says Fairchild. “That’s attractive.” All of a sudden, farmers could turn their fields six or seven times a season rather than just three. Lawnmower-like harvesters made picking seedling leaves a breeze. “People would literally have a row of mustard next to arugula next to butter leaf and were throwing it into bags,” said Fairchild.
As the trend began to take off, buoyed by the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s and the 2000s-era “heyday of salad bars,” an immense apparatus of packing houses, distributors, university extension offices, marketers, food safety specialists, and refrigerated transport networks began to emerge to tackle the numerous challenges associated with a highly perishable product—what Fairchild calls “a ticking time bomb.”
Take packaging, for instance. All leaves respire, “inhaling” carbon dioxide and “exhaling” oxygen. If they’re exposed to the wrong balance of gasses or the wrong temperature, they’ll spoil. Every different species requires different conditions to thrive—bags that work great for iceberg lettuce would ruin arugula, and vice-versa.
Standard plastic films of the 1980s let no air in or out, which meant lettuce would ferment before it reached the shelf. Adding simple perforations made the greens wilt. Failed packaging meant wasted product, each slimy bag of spinach or wilted lettuce leaf another drop in the bucket of the largest overall contributor to global food waste: postharvest loss of fresh produce during transportation and storage.
Each popular variety of salad leaf now has its own specific film—or films—tailored to its exact atmospheric needs. There are compostable packages made with plant-based materials, bags flushed with nitrogen or argon, and materials with pores that contract or expand based on ambient temperature. Head lettuce growers wrap their icebergs in different films depending on the season, where the plant was grown, and its maturity. Engineers are currently working on packaging activated by light or moisture and packaging that automatically releases antimicrobial gas to control spoilage, all with the goal of making it easier for shoppers to safely, conveniently, and easily eat leaves.
Do you have to wash bagged salad greens?
Packaged greens promise convenience. Does that promise extend to being able to skip the salad spinner? It depends. If the package says nothing about washing, or if it says “wash before use,” then you should wash the contents. But if the package says “triple washed” or “pre-washed,” you can feel good about dumping it straight from the bag to the bowl.
Suslow says triple-washed really does refer to a three-part washing process: First, a trip through a roiling water bath where bubbles and jets gently scrub the leaves. Then they’re washed in an antimicrobial treatment, followed by a clean-water rinse. “Prewashed” is similar, but might involve a single trip through a lazy river-like “agitated flume.” Both are so effective that food scientists say home washing is actually more likely to contaminate your pre-washed salad with bacteria that might already be in your house than remove pathogens. “Anything there that might be of concern, you’re not going to be able to wash that off in your kitchen sink,” says Suslow.
Make it work for you
“I would never buy in boxed salad mix for the dinners we do, but for my home kitchen? Absolutely. Sometimes you just want a salad,” says Abra Berens, chef, former farmer, and cookbook author. She says boxed organic arugula is a staple in her home kitchen, particularly when it gets too hot for arugula to grow at Granor Farm, where she hosts ticketed dinners in Three Oaks, Michigan. “I view these as straight-up convenience food.” Berens prefers the boxed format over bagged because the greens tend to be less bruised, and because she can see through the bottom to make sure there’s no yellowing or sliminess lingering at the corners.
Berens also suggests thinking of packaged greens as a starting point rather than a destination. Add other vegetables with different colors and textures to make your salad more interesting. “Cutting up a radish, or peeling a carrot with a vegetable peeler—any of those types of things can really make a tremendous difference,” said Berens. Shaved red cabbage, slivered red onion, even other types of lettuce you might have kicking around in the crisper can enliven a plain box of spinach or baby chard.
For cooks accustomed to doing everything from scratch, leaning on convenience items can be a jolt. But after Berens’s son was born, she found herself reaching for not only pre-washed greens but bottled salad dressings, too. “I got super into it,” she says. “I would leave the house for a couple of hours, go to the grocery store, and try a bunch of different types of salad dressing. It felt like I was doing heroin or something—it’s so rebellious to do that! And it’s great. It totally meant that we ate salad regularly. Trying to mix together even oil and vinegar, I was like, ‘I cannot do that right now.’ And I think it’s okay.”
Bagged greens probably won’t make a salad that causes Alice Waters’s mouth to fall open. If you’ve got the time to wash and prepare head lettuces and other greens, you’ll end up with something cheaper and tastier; the salad you want rather than the salad somebody else thought you should have. But when bagged greens mean the difference between eating vegetables or not, tell the salad shamers to take a hike. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Berens. “There’s such a stigma around eating vegetables. People are time strapped, and so if it makes it possible, then that is really important.”