Help! What's the secret to crisp salad greens?
Source your greens carefully. Crispness is not the only characteristic in the world of lettuce. This will sound "Berkeley" but, the chi of the greens is what you need to learn to read. Lettuce has a different feeling, look, and taste when it's fresh and recently harvested. Organic greens do not crunch radically better, but it can mean that it was grown by a small farm and handled with greater care (always exceptions). Don't be afraid to throw away a good portion of the outside leaves, as they are the toughest in texture, and most likely to wilt first.
Leave the greens as whole as possible if it's head lettuce. As soon as you separate and/or chop they become less lively. Store them with a moist (not sopping) towel, to help them stay hydrated. And do not dress them until the last possible moment, as the acid will cause them to break down at an alarming rate.
Manka's, a restaurant north of SF, was receiving some of their greens still rooted in a box full of dirt. This is the kind of freshness that grazing animals can truly appreciate. It wasn't served in the dirt, but you may be onto somethin
You didn't say what kind of lettuce you use, but it seems that most lettuce outside of iceberg is not really crispy, but rather tender and delicate.
Ever since pre-washed salad greens became widely available and affordable, I find myself rarely purchasing a head of lettuce anymore. Bagged greens have several benefits:
1) ease: open bag, put into bowl
2) taste: interesting mixes out there so I don't have to have ALL of one lettuce
3) shelf life: I find these to last longer than a misted head of lettuce
4) dressing "clingability": since it's 100% dry, the dressing holds on much better
Brand preferences: Earthbound Farms & Trader Joe's (their new "mache" mix is really good). For a potluck, I usually use 2 bags worth.
When I make a salad, I always tear the lettuce into pieces one leaf at a time -- never cut it, and *never* tear bunches of leaves together, which can cause bruising. I also do not prepare my lettuce very far in advance -- I will separate the leaves, tearing off any wilty or discolored pieces, then spin in the salad spinner -- no need to dry it in addition to that. I then carefully tear each leaf into the serving bowl, and cover with a damp paper towel until time to dress the salad, which I do right before serving.