What Is Rhubarb? Plus, How to Cook It.

You know it's instrumental to making strawberry rhubarb pie, but what is rhubarb—and can it do more than make tasty desserts?

When rhubarb starts showing up at the market, it’s a surefire sign that spring has sprung. This tasty treat is responsible for some of our favorite spring recipes, but most of us don’t have any idea what rhubarb is. That’s OK; you’re not alone. We’ve got the details on this sweet-tart treat, including how to cook it.

What Is Rhubarb?

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that grows well in cool climates. The stalks are edible, but it’s sometimes planted as an ornamental plant because of its beautiful, vibrant red stalks and wide green leaves. Consumed raw, rhubarb has an intensely tart flavor that’s not generally liked. But toss it with sugar and bake it into cake, pie, shortbread or jam, and rhubarb’s bitterness fades and becomes quite enjoyable.

While it’s most commonly used in combination with other fruits to make sweet treats, rhubarb has several savory applications. Add it to salsa, use it to make chutney or enjoy it as a marinade for meat. If you need inspiration, check out our collection of savory rhubarb recipes.

Is Rhubarb Poisonous?

Rhubarb stalks are safe to eat, but the leaves contain a compound called oxalic acid, which is toxic to both humans and animals. The most common symptoms of oxalic acid poisoning are stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, difficulty breathing and a burning or painful sensation in the throat or mouth.

That sounds terrible, but we’re not that worried; you’d have to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves to reach a toxic level. If you have concerns, read more about this.

When Is Rhubarb in Season?

Rhubarb grows best in cool weather below 75° F, so it’s widely available during the springtime. You’ll find it in most areas beginning in April or May, although some regions tolerate rhubarb growth throughout the summer. It is possible to grow rhubarb indoors or in a hothouse, so don’t be surprised if you find it as early as January! Learn how to grow rhubarb in your garden!

Is Rhubarb a Fruit or a Vegetable?

We already know the line between fruits and vegetables is blurry from the tomato debate. But rhubarb is a bit of an interesting case. Botanically, a fruit contains seeds and vegetables consist of leaves, stalks and roots. That definitely makes rhubarb a vegetable, but the U.S. Customs Court legally classified rhubarb as a fruit in 1947. Since it is most often used to make sweet desserts (like other fruits), they deemed that importers shouldn’t have to pay the higher vegetable tax on the stalks.

Like most fruits and vegetables, rhubarb is packed with health benefits, too.

How to Pick or Choose Rhubarb

If you’re harvesting rhubarb from the plant, it’s important to choose stalks that are firm and upright. Frost can cause the toxic oxalic acid from the leaves to migrate into the stalks, so avoid anything that’s flimsy or soft. Dark red rhubarb is sweeter and more flavorful, but the green stalks are edible, too. Once you’ve chosen your stalks, cut them from the plant at the soil line. Remove the leaves and wash the rhubarb well to remove any excess dirt.

At the grocery store or farmers market, look for firm, shiny stalks without any blemishes. If the rhubarb has the leaves attached, look for leaves that look fresh and haven’t wilted.

How to Cook Rhubarb

After trimming off the toxic leaves, you’re ready to get cooking with rhubarb. If the stalks have any small blemishes, you can remove them with a vegetable peeler. From there, you have some options. Here are a few of our favorite ways to cook rhubarb:

  • Cut the stalks into 2-inch pieces. Then, julienne the pieces into matchsticks and toss them with red wine vinegar and a pinch of salt and sugar. After marinating for a few minutes, add the quickly pickled rhubarb to fresh salads, slaws or use as a pickle for sandwiches.
  • Cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Simmer the chopped rhubarb in a small saucepan over medium-low heat with water and sugar (for every 3 cups of rhubarb, add 1 tablespoon water and 1/2 cup sugar). After 15 minutes, let the mixture cool. Pour the stewed rhubarb over ice cream, cakes or use it as a syrup for pancakes or waffles.
  • Chop the rhubarb into smaller, 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. Toss it with sugar and add it to your favorite baked goods.
  • Toss chopped rhubarb with sugar (about 1/2 cup for every 3 cups of rhubarb). Bake it in a 350 °F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until it’s soft and tender. Puree the baked rhubarb and use it to make homemade soda, add it to boozy margaritas or turn it into ice cream.

Give your newfound rhubarb knowledge a try with these rhubarb recipes.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.