You’ve Got Rhubarb All Wrong

published Jul 2, 2016
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Too many people regard rhubarb like a beloved, sassy elderly aunt. She comes to town each spring and wears a lot of hot pink and bright green. Everyone is thrilled to see her, but after sharing a couple of pies and a pot of coffee, what are they going to do with her the rest of the time?

More than a Pie Plant

Pie remains the most common destination for rhubarb, so much so that some older cookbooks and garden logs called it “pie plant.” Granted, rhubarb makes phenomenal pie, but it deserves more. Consider it like apples; apple pie is great stuff, but if pies, crisps, and cobblers were the only way you ever enjoyed an apple, you’d be missing out.

Similarly, rhubarb does just fine solo, and doesn’t need strawberries as a wingman. I suspect that the classic pairing started because field-grown rhubarb and strawberries come into season at the same time, and things that grow together often go together. Rhubarb made the comparatively limited supply of fresh strawberries go farther, and in turn, acerbic rhubarb benefitted from strawberry’s sweetness. Cooks were once taught to sweeten rhubarb with as much sugar as would be used in any fruit pie, and then add that much again, and then turn around and throw in another handful over their shoulders.

Sugar Isn’t Salvation

Smart cooks know there is more to rhubarb than sweets. Whether raw or cooked, pleasingly tart rhubarb lends a pleasant tanginess to savory dishes and beverages as well. It behaves like a berry, fruit, or vegetable, depending on how it’s seasoned and served.

No matter the application, never ingest the toxic leaves. Some people say the leaves are lethal, while others say they will only make one violently ill. Given those dire options, it’s odd to consider that the primary use of rhubarb was once medicinal, but slightly less odd to know it was used as a potent purgative and spring tonic after a long winter.

Rhubarb suitable to use as food is a relatively recent thing, and we can thank Queen Victoria. Her coronation in 1837 inspired all sorts of commemorative memorabilia and tributes, including a new variety of sweeter, milder, and more tender rhubarb that was easy to grow in kitchen gardens. It also yielded larger stalks in relation to the unusable leaves. Thanks, Victoria Rhubarb, for helping to move things from the medicine chest to the pie chest!

Growth and Storage

Rhubarb can be grown outdoors or in hothouses. The peak season for field-grown rhubarb is April to June, although some cultivars produce until fall frost. Hothouse rhubarb, often called forced rhubarb, grows well and ships easily, so fresh rhubarb is available year-round.

Although brilliant red and magenta rhubarb is prettiest and most familiar, not all rhubarb turns red when mature. Some stays green, and other varieties are speckled or mottled. The size of rhubarb stalks varies considerably, but size doesn’t determine tenderness, so look for firm, straight, shiny, and unblemished stalks.

Rhubarb freezes well, but the texture changes when thawed. Although both can play a delicious role in recipes, they are not always interchangeable. Pay attention to recipes that specify one or the other.

Give rhubarb a go. If you haven’t had it in ages, you’ll realize you miss it. If you’ve never had it, you don’t know what you’re missing.