How Long Does Lettuce Last and How to Tell if It’s Bad?

Here’s all you need to know about the shelf life and going bad of lettuce. Learn how long lettuce lasts, how to store it, and how to tell when it’s spoiled.

So you bought a lettuce head and want to know how long you have until it goes all slimy and disgusting. How long does lettuce last?

Or maybe yours looks kind of iffy, and you need to know whether you can still use it or not.

In other words, you’re looking for a quick primer on storage time and spoilage of lettuce, and that’s what this article is all about.

Read on.

Info

Below, we tackle both head lettuce, like iceberg or romaine, and loose-leaf lettuce, like butter or green leaf lettuce. So no matter what you have on hand, we’ve got you covered.

Whole butter lettuce
Whole butter lettuce

Table of Contents

How Long Does Lettuce Last?

Fridge
Leaf lettuce (butterhead, green leaf)7 – 10 days
Head lettuce (iceberg, romaine)7 – 21 days
Lettuce leavesup to 7 days

Head lettuce like iceberg or romaine lasts for 1 to 3 weeks, while loose leaf ones like butterhead or green leaf lettuce keep for only 7 to 10 days. Store your lettuce well-wrapped in the fridge, but allow it some airflow to get rid of excess moisture.

You can also store lettuce leaves. Stored this way, they last for up to a week.

Crisphead lettuce lasts longer than leaf lettuce because the former has the leaves packed tightly, and the outermost ones protect the rest. So if that lettuce head sits in storage for a prolonged period, typically only the outer leaves are damaged, and the inner ones remain largely untouched.

A similar thing happens with:

  • onions, where you usually discard the outer layer
  • leeks, where the outer leaves are coarse and usually not good enough to eat
  • brussels sprouts, where the outer leaves look pretty bad after more than a couple of days of storage

A couple of times, I had iceberg lettuce sitting in the fridge for more than a month, and every time it was still quite okay after all that time. Only the outer leaves were wilted and had some brown and rusty red spots, while the rest was fine.

That doesn’t necessarily mean iceberg lettuce always lasts a whole month in the fridge, but the mentioned three weeks is a realistic period if you store the lettuce properly.

In loose-leaf lettuce, nothing protects the inner leaves. Sure, the outer leaves still take most of the beating, but the inner ones also have access to the environment and start degrading soon after harvest.

That’s why the storage time is much shorter.

Again, yours might stay okay for up to two weeks if you’re lucky, but that’s about the most you can hope for. Unless, of course, you engage in some of the more hands-on storage practices that help prolong the storage of loose-leaf lettuce.

Let’s talk about storage, then.

Bagel with lettuce and baked chicken
Bagel with lettuce and baked chicken

Does Lettuce Need to Be Refrigerated?

You don’t have to refrigerate lettuce, but it loses quality much quicker on the counter than it does in the fridge.

Your lettuce will last about 2 to 4 days at room temperature, depending on whether it’s a loose-leaf or head lettuce. But if you place it in the fridge, it’ll keep for between 7 and 21 days, depending on the type.

Because of those storage time differences, refrigerating lettuce is highly recommended.

How to Store Lettuce in the Fridge?

Keeping your lettuce fresh for as long as possible is about managing humidity. Lettuce requires some moisture to stay crisp, but not too much so that it doesn’t wilt and go slimy. It’s a fine balance.

The easiest and hands-off way to control the humidity is to allow airflow so the plant can get rid of excess water, but not too much so that it dries out.

The easiest way to give the plant access to fresh air is to keep it in a half-open or ventilated plastic bag.

Something like this:

Romaine lettuce container
Romaine lettuce container in a ventilated bag

How much the bag should be open depends on the humidity in your crisper drawer or fridge depending on where you store it. You want to see a bit of condensation in the bag, but not too much. Large drops of water here and there are way more than you need.

If there’s too much water in the bag and on the leaves, you remove the excess with kitchen towels and open up the bag a bit more. Or maybe poke a couple (more) of holes in it.

If there’s no condensation and the leaves look dry, seal the bag a bit more so that the moisture stays inside.

Romaine lettuce holes in bag
Romaine lettuce in a ventilated bag (notice there’s still condensation)

Next, remember to store lettuce away from ethylene-producing fruits and veggies like apples, pears, peaches, or tomatoes. Excess ethylene is responsible for those rusty red and brown spots on the leaves.

Last, no matter how well you store your lettuce, the leaves will wilt a bit over time. So if you want them in tip-top shape, you need a fresh head.

Now, let’s talk about a few more “advanced” ideas, like washing the lettuce before storing it or using paper towels to control humidity better.

Storing lettuce in a bag
Storing lettuce in a bag

Should You Wash Lettuce Before Storage?

Most people asked this question would probably answer no, you shouldn’t wash any produce before storage. Instead, you wash it right before eating.

That’s one way to go about washing lettuce.

But some people wash lettuce (especially loose-leaf) when they get home from the grocery store.

The whole process is simple: you remove any bad (damaged, slimy, or wilted) leaves, rinse the head under running water, and finally remove the excess moisture using a salad spinner or paper towels.

The idea here is that washing and removing damaged leaves helps the rest of the greens last longer.

If you want to try to extend the storage time for your lettuce as much as possible (without freezing it), feel free to give it a try.

The jury is still out on whether it’s a good way to prolong storage time for lettuce, but one thing is certain: it requires a couple of extra minutes before you can put the plant in the fridge. And I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t have the time (or motivation) to wash the lettuce before refrigerating it.

Whole iceberg lettuce
Whole iceberg lettuce

Paper Towels

If you want to control the moisture in the bag a bit better, you can use paper towels.

For loose-leaf lettuce, place one or two towels on the bottom of the bag and another one to three between the leaves. Those towels catch that extra moisture but still keep it near the surface of the leaves so that they stay nice and crisp.

When it comes to crisphead lettuce, you wrap the head with the towels before placing it in the bag.

Every day or two, you check the towels and replace wet ones. The other towels that are only slightly damp are okay to stay where they are.

Tip

You can leave wet paper towels to dry and reuse them if you want.

If your lettuce tends to wilt immediately, you can try using slightly damp paper towels instead of dry ones. They will provide some much-needed moisture to the leaves.

(The damp paper towel trick works for other veggies like carrots or asparagus. Wrapping with damp paper towels is also how you store chives for longer.)

Once again, using paper towels help manage leaf humidity, but it adds yet another thing to your already crowded to-do list. It’s a nice-to-know trick, but I don’t expect most of you have the time to apply it.

If you want simplicity and hands-off solutions, stick to half-open plastic bags and figure out how open yours should be so that the lettuce stays nice and crisp for as long as possible.

Iceberg lettuce in a bag
Iceberg lettuce in a ventilated bag

Storing Lettuce Leaves

The easiest way to store lettuce leaves is to place them in a freezer bag and add a paper towel below and above them to help control the moisture. You can leave the top of the bag half-open to allow some airflow.

That setup should get you the seven days of storage I mentioned earlier.

If you want to make using the leaves easier for your future self, wash and dry them before putting them in that bag. This way, you can grab and use them without any further prep.

How to Tell If Lettuce Is Bad?

Signs of spoiled lettuce include:

  • Slimy or soft leaves. If the whole thing is soft and wet, and the leaves are darker than usual, discard it. That’s the reason you will throw out your lettuce 99 out of 100 times.
  • An off smell. If it smells bad, it’s done for.

But more often than not, you don’t discard the whole head, even if it has already sat in the fridge for quite some time.

Instead, you toss all the damaged outer leaves and use the rest.

For crisphead lettuce, that means you remove the two or three outer leaves and often find that the rest is okay.

For loose-leaf lettuce, it’s not as pretty.

Sometimes you only need to remove a couple of outer leaves. But there are also times when the leaves are still brownish or slimy after peeling back 3 or 4 layers. And you end up with a few small leaves while the rest goes in the trash.

Of course, you don’t have to discard the whole leaf if only a part of it is damaged. It’s fine to cut out any black edges, discolored spots, and anything else that bothers you and use the rest. Just make sure to cut with some excess to stay safe.

Tip

Browning edges, pink and dark spots, and the like aren’t necessarily unsafe to eat, but they taste pretty bad. Remove them.

Last, let’s talk about wilting.

Wilting lettuce leaves are okay to eat, but you better hurry because they will turn slimy soon.

The good news is you can revive them by soaking them in ice water for half an hour. That will bring back some of the crispness, and it’s worth trying if you want crispy lettuce for a salad. A similar trick works for celery.

Iceberg lettuce salad

Lettuce Shelf Life and Spoilage Summary

Thank you for reading this short guide on lettuce. Let’s briefly recap what we’ve covered above:

  • How long does lettuce last? Head lettuce (iceberg, romaine) lasts for 1 to 3 weeks, while loose leaf lettuce (butterhead, green leaf) keeps for 7 to 10 days. You can also store lettuce leaves for about a week.
  • How to tell if lettuce is bad? Lettuce is spoiled if its leaves are super soft, slimy, largely discolored, or the whole head smells off. If only the outermost leaves are bad and the rest is okay, you can discard those outer leaves and use whatever is left.
  • How to store lettuce? Store lettuce in a half-open plastic bag in the crisper drawer. If there’s a lot of condensation in the bag, consider adding some paper towels to soak up the extra water. And remember to replace wet (slightly moist are okay) paper towels with fresh ones.