Rhubarb Basics to Know for the Best Spring Eats
Take full advantage of rhubarb season this year! Those pink and green stalks add big flavor and color to spring recipes. They can go sweet or savory, like in our strawberry rhubarb pie or rhubarb pulled pork. We'll break down the basics of cooking with rhubarb so you'll know how to prep it, how to select good rhubarb at the store or farmers market, and tips on freezing rhubarb to save those fresh flavors for later in the year. Then try some of our best rhubarb recipes.
What Is Rhubarb?
Because the stalks of rhubarb most often make their way into dessert recipes, rhubarb sauce, and other sweets, many people think rhubarb is a fruit. However, as a member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. Two types of rhubarb make their way into markets: they are hothouse and field-grown rhubarb varieties.
This variety has pink to pale-red stalks with greenish-yellow leaves and it's what you'll usually find at the grocery store. If you aren't blessed with a rhubarb plant in your yard and need to know where to buy rhubarb, just check the produce section at your local grocery store during spring months. Out of season, you'll be hard-pressed to find rhubarb outside the frozen aisle.
More intensely flavored, this seasonal variety of rhubarb is distinguished by its dark red stalks and green leaves. It's a farmers market favorite from April to June.
Test Kitchen Tip: If you find rhubarb too tart for your tastes, look for rhubarb recipes that bring some sweet fruits to the mix. Strawberry-rhubarb is a classic combination in pies, crisps, and other desserts.
Is Rhubarb Poisonous?
Rhubarb stalks are totally safe to eat both raw and cooked. However, you should never eat rhubarb leaves; they contain a toxin called oxalic acid that makes them poisonous and could lead to kidney failure.
When Is Rhubarb in Season?
Hothouse rhubarb is available year-round in some markets. Field-grown rhubarb, however, is available February through June, with its peak season from April through June. Since peak rhubarb season is so short, you'll want to take advantage of it by making your favorite rhubarb recipes while you can. You can always find frozen rhubarb in the freezer section of grocery stores when you're in a pinch.
How to Choose Rhubarb
Look for crisp stalks that are firm and tender. Avoid rhubarb stalks that look wilted, feel woody, or are very thick. Aside from the flavor differences between hothouse rhubarb and field-grown rhubarb, the color of the stalks doesn't have much impact on taste. For the tenderest, sweetest stalks, look for firm young stalks that are less than 2 inches wide.
If you have a rhubarb patch of your own, here's how to get it from the soil to your kitchen:
- Harvest the stalks in spring and early summer. The stalks at the outer edge of the plant can be pulled off at the soil line when the leaves are fully open and developed.
- Take hold of the stalk close to the soil line, and give a slight twist as you pull. Never take more than about a third of the stalks at one time.
- Stop harvesting rhubarb before midsummer and let the plant continue to grow.
How to Store Rhubarb
Cut off and discard any leaves from the rhubarb stalks (if present).To store rhubarb stalks, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap or reusable storage bags and refrigerate up to 3 days.
How to Prepare Rhubarb
Before cooking, trim stalks at the top and bottom. As mentioned above, discard any leave because they're poisonous. Cut away and discard any tough, woody, or bruised parts of the stalks. Wash the stalks thoroughly and scrub with a vegetable brush. You don't need to peel peak-season rhubarb, but by midsummer the stalks tend to be tough and fibrous, so you might need to peel them to make them tastier.
Test Kitchen Tip: Yes, you can eat rhubarb raw, just avoid the poisonous leaves.
How to Freeze Rhubarb
If you have more rhubarb than you can use in the next few days, lucky you! Rhubarb freezes well. Here's how to freeze rhubarb step-by-step.
Step 1: Clean
Discard leaves and woody ends. Wash rhubarb with cool tap water, but do not soak. Drain.
Step 2: Cut
Arrange the stalks parallel on a cutting board. Using a sharp, long-bladed knife (such as a chef's knife), cut the stalks into ½- to 1-inch pieces or as directed in your recipe.
Step 3: Blanch (optional)
Fill your sink or a large container with ice water. Then fill a large pot with water, using 1 gallon of water per 1 pound of prepared rhubarb. Bring the pot of water to boiling. Add prepared rhubarb to the boiling water; cover. Start timing immediately and cook over high heat for 1 minute (2 minutes if you live 5,000 feet or higher above sea level). As soon as the blanching time is complete, use a slotted spoon to remove the rhubarb from the boiling water. Immediately plunge the rhubarb into the ice water. Chill for 1 minute (2 minutes for high-altitude cooking); drain.
Test Kitchen Tip: If you're planning to store frozen rhubarb 3 months or longer, the blanching step may help preserve the color of fresh rhubarb better. If you'll be using the rhubarb sooner, you can skip this step.
Step 4: Flash freeze
Place cut (and blanched, if desired) rhubarb on a parchment-lined baking sheet and flash freeze until firm (about 2 to 3 hours).
Step 5: Label containers and freeze
Label freezer bags or containers with contents and the date and freeze up to one year. To use frozen rhubarb, simply thaw in its container in the refrigerator and use as you would fresh rhubarb in recipes.