All About Rhubarb, Plus Recipes That Go Beyond Pie

All About Rhubarb | Freshly Picked Rhubarb

Photo by Meredith

All About Rhubarb

Rhubarb Overview

What is rhubarb?
A perennial vegetable characterized by long crimson or light green stalks topped by large ruffled green leaves. Its extremely tart stalks are the only edible part of the plant; the leaves contain poisonous oxalic acid, and are always snipped off and discarded. Although the Chinese have used rhubarb medicinally for thousands of years, its use as a food source is a relatively recent development, particularly after the 17th century when sugar became more widely available.

Where does rhubarb grow in the United States?
Although rhubarb looks like an exotic tropical plant, it actually prefers a cool climate. You’ll find field-grown rhubarb in the northern states from Maine to Washington State. Rhubarb can also be raised in hothouses.

When is field-grown rhubarb ripe?
Springtime is rhubarb season. Depending on the climate, some areas can enjoy rhubarb crops into summer, but for the most part, rhubarb doesn’t do well in the heat.

Is rhubarb a nutritious food source?
This low-calorie, low-starch, high-fiber vegetable is a good source of magnesium, vitamins C and K, calcium, and manganese.

Did you know? “Rhubarb” is an old-timey slang term for a quarrel or dispute. #ilovewords

Growing and Harvesting Rhubarb

All About Rhubarb | Rhubarb Stalks and Leaves

Photo by Meredith

Can I grow rhubarb at home?
Yes, if you live in the cool northern states. Check with your local agriculture extension office to see if rhubarb will thrive where you’re gardening.

Does it take up a lot of room in the garden?
Give it an open, sunny, well-drained spot in the garden with about 36 inches of personal space for each plant. You’ll want to plant rhubarb roots instead of slow-to-grow seeds, and give plants plenty of water during the growing season. Don’t plan on harvesting stalks until at least the second year after the plant has gotten established, and then just harvest a few stalks. Rhubarb will die down to the ground in autumn and may seem to disappear over winter, but bright pink new growth will appear in early spring.

Does rhubarb produce a flower?
If you see a rhubarb stalk with a gnarly looking bud on the end, that’s a flower stalk. Most gardeners remove the entire stalk right down to the base so the plant can expend energy on making more leaves rather than on the flower. The flower is edible but the stalk and leaves have a high concentration of oxalic acid and should not be eaten. To cook the flower, remove the stalk and any leaves encasing the bud. Steam the bud like broccoli or use it in a stir-fry. Rhubarb flowers taste tart, like broccoli with a robust squeeze of lemon.

How do I harvest rhubarb stalks?
Either cut off the stalk at the very base of the plant, or pull it at the base with a twisting motion until it comes away. You can harvest a few stalks at a time and let the rest mature. The older the plant, the more stalks it will grow.

What does ripe rhubarb look like?
Different varieties of rhubarb will be deep crimson, rosy pink, or even pink-streaked green when fully ripe. If you’re selecting rhubarb in the grocery store or farmers’ market, choose stalks that are firm and blemish-free. Don’t buy stalks that are limp, shriveled, or spotted brown. Rhubarb stalks are stringy like celery, but they break down during cooking, so de-stringing is not necessary.

How do I store rhubarb?
Wrap fresh rhubarb in plastic, put it in the refrigerator, and don’t wash it until you’re ready to use it. Rhubarb will keep for up to a week if you store it carefully.

Can I freeze it?
If you’ve got a bumper crop of rhubarb and want to freeze it to use year-round, prepare it by washing and cutting it into 1-inch pieces. Drop the pieces into boiling water for one minute, and then stop the cooking by “shocking” it. Scoop rhubarb out with a slotted spoon or sieve and plunge it immediately into ice water. Drain the cooled rhubarb pieces, spread them out on baking sheets and transfer them to the freezer. Once the rhubarb is frozen solid, you can store it in heavy-duty plastic bags for up to a year.

Get more tips for freezing fruits and vegetables.

Cooking and Baking with Rhubarb

Now comes the fun part. Although rhubarb is a vegetable, we usually treat it like a fruit by using it on its own or in combination with other fruit in pies, crisps, jams, muffins, and quick breads.

Food Trivia
Rhubarb actually gained legal status as a fruit in 1947 when the U.S. Customs Court ruled that because it was used like a fruit, it must be considered a fruit. Good news for businesses who were able to pay lower taxes on fruits than on vegetables.

All About Rhubarb | Baking with Fresh Rhubarb

Photo by Vanessa Greaves

More: The rhubarb muffins you’ve got to try this spring.

Temper the Tartness
Often too tart on its own, rhubarb pairs wonderfully with other fruits to create a complex sweet-tart flavor. Berries, apples, oranges, and peaches are all good choices.

More Than Just a Pie Plant
Pie is one of the most popular ways to dish up cooked rhubarb. It’s often combined with other fruit, such as strawberries. Discover dozens of tried-and-true rhubarb pie recipes.

All About Rhubarb | Rhubarb Pie

Photo by Meredith

More: Get tips for making and decorating pies.

Jammin’ with Rhubarb
Cooking down rhubarb stalks into sweet tart jam is even easier than making pie.

All About Rhubarb | Rhubarb Jam

Photo by Allrecipes Magazine

Recipe shown: Rhubarb Jam

You can make excellent rhubarb jam by stewing it on its own with sugar, or combining it with strawberries or other fruit. Try Rhubarb Jam, Rhubarb Strawberry Jam, Rhubarb Pineapple Jam, and Easy Apple Rhubarb Jam.

More: Get tips for making freezer jam.

Cooking Tip
Rhubarb is highly acidic—in fact, some people swear the best way to clean a stained pot is to cook rhubarb in it. To avoid a chemical reaction, use a stainless steel, glass, enameled, or nonstick pan. Aluminum or uncoated iron pans will turn the mixture gray.

More Ways to Love Rhubarb

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