Fresh rhubarb sauce and pie season starts in early spring and runs nearly to the first day of summer.
Often thought of as a fruit, rhubarb is a vegetable. In some regions rhubarb is so much thought of as a dessert fruit that it is also called pieplant.
Rhubarb is too tart to be enjoyed raw. To take rhubarb to pie heights you’ll need to add sugar or another sweetener. Then you can enjoy rhubarb’s sweet-sour fruity taste that hints of apricot, strawberry, and lemon all rolled into one.
In America rhubarb and strawberries are often paired, in Britain rhubarb and ginger.
Rhubarb’s thick, celery-like stalks are often sliced or chopped and cooked to accompany both savory dishes—meats and fish—and desserts. Rhubarb is interchangeable with cranberries in most recipes.
The peak season for rhubarb fresh out of the garden—or field–is spring through summer. It’s most flavorful in the spring. The season for hothouse grown rhubarb is mid-winter through early spring.
Rhubarb is a hardy, cool-season perennial plant with thick, red, fleshy stalks topped by wide, crinkled, green leaves. Rhubarb stalks can grow to 3 feet tall (90 cm) and between 1 and 3 inches (2.5-7.5 cm) thick. Rhubarb leaves are inedible. They contain oxalic acid and can be toxic.
Other types of rhubarb. There are at least 20 varieties of rhubarb, but essentially only two types: field or garden grown and hothouse grown.
Field grown rhubarb–also called cherry rhubarb–has deep red stalks and green leaves. It is juicy and acidity.
Hothouse rhubarb–also called strawberry rhubarb—has pink to pale red stalks and yellowish green leaves. It also has a smooth flesh and delicate texture. Hothouse rhubarb is less acidity and milder tasting than field grown rhubarb and requires less sweetener when cooked.
Choose. Select rhubarb that is firm and crisp with stalks of the brightest colors. If the leaves are attached, they should be fresh-looking without blemish.
Avoid rhubarb stalks that are bruised, blemished or pithy.
Store. Keep rhubarb tightly wrapped in a plastic bag and refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 5 days. Do not wash rhubarb until you are ready to cook.
You can freeze rhubarb but you must cut it into pieces and stew it first.
Preserve rhubarb by cooking it and then placing it in warm sterilized jar, or fill the jar with alternating layers of raw rhubarb pieces and sugar, seal the jar, then sterilize the jar in boiling water.
Prepare. Trim off the ends, wash the stalks, and cut them into ¾ inch (19 mm) pieces. Cut rhubarb slices on the diagonal against the grain of the stalk. If the rhubarb is stringy, pare the stalks and pull off the strings. Hothouse rhubarb should not need peeling. Cut our and discard any green tissue.
Serve. Rhubarb can be stewed or baked. It is used to make sauces, jams, and desserts such as pies, cakes and muffins. It is commonly cooked and made into compote, marmalade, or marinades and it is also incorporated into sorbets, ice cream, and punches.
- Plain stewed rhubarb without sweeteners will be unpleasantly tart and strong tasting. To overcome the tartness, poach rhubarb in light sugar syrup or stew it with other fruits.
- You can cook rhubarb in a small amount of water over moderate heat for about 20 minutes or until soft. You will not need to purée it. Cook rhubarb with sugar slowly.
- Use stewed rhubarb for fruit pies. Put stewed rhubarb sauce on top of cheesecake or vanilla pudding or serve it on hot buttered cinnamon toast.
- To prepare a rhubarb sauce for hotcakes, waffles, crepes, and ice cream, chop the thick, fleshy leaf stalks into 1-2 inch (25-50 mm) pieces, then boil in water, cover and add sugar to taste.
- Rhubarb can be used in recipes that call for apples. Rhubarb blends well with strawberries and apples. For a richer flavor, you can add a few raisins.
- Fold sweetened, cooked diced rhubarb into yogurt. Add finely chopped rhubarb to any nut bread recipe. Use baked or stewed rhubarb as a topping for a cooked breakfast cereal.
- Sweetened rhubarb juice makes a refreshing cold drink.
The flavor of rhubarb can be improved by adding orange juice, marmalade, or cinnamon.
Avoid using aluminum pans when cooking rhubarb so that it does not discolor.
Flavor partners. Rhubarb has a flavor affinity for blackberries, brown sugar, duck, ginger, goose, honey, maple syrup, oily fish, raspberries, and strawberries.
Season rhubarb with lemon, cinnamon, and ginger.
Nutrition. Rhubarb contains vitamin A and C and is rich in potassium and calcium. Rhubarb is rarely consumed on its own because of its high acidity—sugar is often added increasing caloric content.
Rhubarb facts and trivia. Rhubarb is thought to have originated in Mongolia or southern Siberia. It flourishes in cool to cold regions and grows from rhizomes or crowns which can survive in frozen ground during the winter. Rhubarb needs winter chill for its thick stems and red color.
The first record of rhubarb appeared in a Chinese herbal dating from 200 B.C. The first mention of rhubarb as a food plant came in tenth century French recipes for tarts and pies. The varieties known today were popularized in the nineteenth century.
The word rhubarb comes from the Latin word reubarbarum—meaning root of the barbarians—a designation for a root or plant that is unfamiliar or foreign.
In 1947, a United States court decision deemed rhubarb a fruit even though it is botanically a vegetable. The court ruled that since rhubarb is most often used as a fruit in the kitchen it should be considered one legally. It may sound like a silly decision but at the time it meant a 15 percent lower duty tax on imported rhubarb.
The botanical name for rhubarb is Rheum rhabarbarum.