Because the stalks of rhubarb most often make their way into rhubarb dessert recipes, rhubarb sauce, and other sweet applications, cooks often think rhubarb is a fruit. However, as a member of the buckwheat family, rhubarb actually falls into the vegetable category.
Two types of rhubarb make their way into markets:
• Hothouse Rhubarb: This variety has pink to pale-red stalks with greenish-yellow leaves.
• Field-Grown Rhubarb: More intensely flavored, this seasonal variety of rhubarb is distinguished by its dark red stalks and green leaves.
Good to know: 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.
Look for crisp stalks that are firm and tender. Avoid rhubarb stalks that look wilted, feel woody, or are very thick.
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.
Cut off and discard any leaves from the rhubarb stalks (if present). Never eat rhubarb leaves; they contain a toxin that makes them poisonous. To store rhubarb stalks, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Before cooking, trim stalks at the top and bottom. As mentioned above, discard any leaves, as they are poisonous. Cut away and discard any tough, woody, or bruised parts of the stalks. You need not peel rhubarb; however, wash the stalks thoroughly and scrub with a vegetable brush
Arrange the stalks parallel on a cutting board. Using a sharp, long-bladed knife (such as a chef's knife), cut the stalks into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces for freezing or for use in rhubarb pie and other rhubarb desserts -- or as directed in your recipe.
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:
• Discard leaves and woody ends. Wash rhubarb with cool, clear tap water, but do not soak. Drain.
• Cut the rhubarb into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces.
• Blanch the rhubarb: 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 well.
• Spoon the cooled, drained rhubarb into freezer containers, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace.
• Wipe container rims (if using). Seal containers according to manufacturer's directions. If necessary, use freezer tape around lid edges for a tight seal.
• Label containers with contents, amount, and date. Add packages to the freezer in batches to make sure the rhubarb freezes quickly. Leave space between packages so air can circulate around them. When frozen solid, the packages can be placed closer together.
• Use frozen rhubarb within 8 to 10 months. Thaw rhubarb in its container in the refrigerator.