Rhubarb is one of those iconic vegetables that transports us from one season to the next, from the dull days of winter to the rebirth of spring. Botanically speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable because it has both leaf and stem; however, it was officially proclaimed a fruit in 1947 by the US Customs Court, because that’s how we eat it in this country — in fact, it’s so firmly established as a fruit in our national consciousness that it’s commonly called “pie plant.”
Fresh rhubarb is generally available across the country from April to October. Hothouse rhubarb appears from December through March and may be available year-round in some markets.
Rhubarb originated in the Himalayas, where its root was an important medicine believed to purge the body of ill humors. By the mid-17th century, it had become popular in Europe as a medicinal tonic. Demand for the rhubarb rhizome was so great that it was reputedly ten times more expensive than cinnamon and more than twice the cost of opium. In Russia, the czars maintained a monopoly over the lucrative rhubarb trade.
Culinary uses of rhubarb were slower to develop. Rhubarb is robustly tart — even sour — and its leaves contain oxalic acid, which can be toxic if eaten in quantity. Rhubarb only became popular as an edible plant once refined sugar became widely available, and its culinary role today is mostly confined to desserts.
There are two basic types of rhubarb: hothouse (or strawberry rhubarb) and field-grown (also called cherry rhubarb). Hothouse varieties are milder in flavor, with smoother flesh and a more delicate texture; those stalks are light pink to pale red, often speckled with green, and their giant elephant-ear leaves are yellow-green rather than deep emerald. Field-grown rhubarb is characterized by large, thick stalks that tend to be stringy, though they’re very juicy and a deep cherry-red in color. Its flavor is more robust and tart than hothouse varieties, with bolder acidity.
How to select and store rhubarb
Look for firm, crisp, unblemished stalks that are slender, preferably less than an inch wide. Thicker stalks can be stringy and tough.
Choose glossy stalks with a deep red hue, preferably with leaves still attached. Healthy looking leaves are a sign of freshness, but retailers often remove them. If your rhubarb has leaves, cut them off and discard them when you get home; they’re toxic and should not be eaten.
Color is not necessarily an indicator of maturity; rhubarb can range from pink and red to green. Red stalks tend to be sweeter.
Rhubarb dries out quickly. Refrigerate rhubarb stalks unwashed in a plastic bag for up to 1 week. Rhubarb freezes exceptionally well; since it’s never eaten raw, freezing makes good sense. Trim, wash and slice the stalks, then place in freezer bags or an airtight container and freeze for up to 6 months.
Tips for using rhubarb
Rhubarb is revered for its distinctively tart and fruity flavor. Though other cultures have a long history of using rhubarb as a vegetable, here at home we use rhubarb as a fruit in pies, cobblers, fools and jams.
Rhubarb is often paired with strawberries, but it’s also delicious on its own or in combination with citrus, pineapple, pears and herbs. It can be roasted, baked, stewed, poached, candied or juiced, which offers the cook great versatility. For a change of pace, try it puréed and lightly sweetened as a flavorful sauce for pork.
Unadorned, rhubarb is low in calories, but it needs a lot of sweetening to balance its acidity; combining it with other fruits and berries reduces the need for so much sugar.
Generally speaking, rhubarb doesn’t need peeling; however, if your stalks are very mature and stringy, it’s advisable to remove the coarse fibers with a paring knife or peeler.
Cook rhubarb in a non-reactive pan so the stalks don’t turn an unappealing gray color or pick up a metallic flavor. Rhubarb cooks extremely fast, so take care not to overcook it, which will make the stalks mushy and tasteless.
Why choose organic?
Choose organic whenever you can to help keep the residues of conventional agricultural pesticides and fertilizers out of your food. Organic produce is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think it tastes better, too!