You know it's instrumental to making strawberry rhubarb pie, but what is rhubarb—and can it do more than make tasty desserts?
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When rhubarb starts showing up at the farmers market, it’s a surefire sign that spring has sprung. This tasty treat is the star of our favorite rhubarb recipes for spring, but most of us don’t have any idea what rhubarb actually 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 delicious.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
To pick rhubarb, put away your garden shears! Grasp firm stalks and pull and twist to harvest. Stalks that are ready to eat should pull away easily; if you’re having a hard time pulling, leave that stalk to grow some more. 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.
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?
Rhubarb has an extremely tart flavor that many find unpleasant. It’s crunchy like celery when raw, but it becomes soft and after it’s cooked. The sour flavor does mellow a little when cooked, but rhubarb is almost always mixed with sugar to counteract the lip-puckering taste.
How Do You Store Rhubarb?
After harvesting, rhubarb stalks should be stored in the refrigerator. The ends dry out easily, so it’s best to wrap rhubarb in a towel or place it in a reusable produce bag. Our favorite way to store rhubarb is like celery: loosely wrapped in aluminum foil. Just make sure not to wrap the ends too tightly. Rhubarb should last about two weeks in the refrigerator when properly stored.
If you can’t use it all, freeze the rhubarb and eat it all year long. First, slice the stalks into one- to two-inch pieces. It can be frozen raw, or you can blanch the rhubarb in boiling water for one minute to set the color, dunking it in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Either way, pat the pieces dry and place them in a single layer on a wax paper-lined baking sheet. Freeze the rhubarb for four hours before transferring the pieces to a freezer bag. Frozen rhubarb should last about a year in the freezer.
How to Cook Rhubarb
After trimming off the 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.
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.
I found this strawberry rhubarb crisp recipe on a box of Quaker Oats about 20 years ago. It's quick and easier to make than pie. It's versatile, too, because you can add strawberries in spring or apples in fall. I usually pop it into the oven shortly before we sit down to eat so it's still warm for dessert! —C.E. Adams, Charlestown, New Hampshire
The rhubarb flavor in this tart balances nicely with the honey and amaretto. The mascarpone cheese makes it rich and creamy. Sometimes I'll even double the rhubarb for really sumptuous tarts. —Ellen Riley, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I remember eating this relish at my grandmother's over 50 years ago. My mother made it for years and now my daughters make it. The relish complements any meat, but I find it a must with meat loaf. —Helen Brooks, Lacombe, Alberta r
My husband and I love pie, but we can't eat a whole 9-inch pie by ourselves. So I make these easy tarts using rhubarb and raspberries picked at home. Sometimes I substitute apples, peaches or our garden blueberries for the rhubarb. —Naomi Olson Hamilton, Michigan
A "fool" is a British dessert that's usually made with custard. This is a modified, quicker version I created. My kids love it because it doesn't taste like rhubarb—so I guess it's well named! —Cheryl Miller, Fort Collins, Colorado
I prepare this easy spring dessert quite often when fresh rhubarb is abundant. I make this rhubarb cake with cake mix and take it to church potlucks. People actually line up for a piece. —Bonnie Krogman, Thompson Falls, Montana
I got this recipe from my niece's son. Since we live in apple country, we have enjoyed apple fritters for many years. This rhubarb treat is a nice change for spring when apples are few and rhubarb is plentiful. —Helen Budinock, Wolcott, New York
These cheesecake bars layer a buttery pecan shortbread crust with a rich and creamy filling and sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb jam. For larger squares, cut into nine bars instead of 16. —Amanda Scarlati, Sandy, Utah
My husband’s grandmother was an excellent cook, but she didn’t always share her secrets. Luckily, we have her rhubarb pie recipe. I added one of my favorite crusts and a never-fail meringue. —Elaine Sampson, Colesburg, Iowa
My family loves rhubarb, and this is such a fun way to enjoy it. It's nice to have in the freezer and bring out when guests drop by. Even people that aren't crazy about rhubarb enjoy it. —Cathie Beard, Philomath, Oregon
It's always fun to serve a meat or poultry dish with a twist. This tangy-sweet chutney is a wonderfully different garnish. With fine chunks of rhubarb and raisins, it has a nice consistency. It's among our favorite condiments. —Jan Paterson, Anchorage, Alaska
Springtime brings back memories of the rhubarb that grew beside my childhood home. When I found ruby red stalks in the store, I created this recipe for them. My family gives this a big thumbs up. —Laurie Hudson, Westville, Florida
This tangy sweet spread is "jam-packed" with lots of cherry flavor, plus a hint of rhubarb. My mother gives jars of it to friends during rhubarb season—it's so delicious on toast and muffins. —Faye Sampson, Radcliffe, Iowa
Slab pie is a pastry baked in a jelly-roll pan and cut into slabs like a bar cookie—or a pie bar, if you will. My grandfather was a professional baker and served pieces of slab pie to his customers back in the day. Here is my spin, featuring rhubarb and gorgeous red raspberries. —Jeanne Ambrose, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
My husband's aunt gave me this recipe, and it's become our family's favorite breakfast topping. Sometimes I'll substitute cherry pie filling (which I put through the blender) for the blueberry pie filling—it's tasty, too! —Rita Wagenmann, Grangeville, Idaho
A dollop of whipped topping adds a nice finishing touch to this satisfying crumble. Sometimes I drizzle a little flavored coffee creamer on top instead of the whipped topping. —Nancy Sousley, Lafayette, Indiana
A neighbor shared this recipe with me, and I created my own variation using garden-fresh rhubarb and strawberries. The shortbread crust and creamy sweet-tart layers went over big at a family party—not a crumb was left! —Sara Zignego, Hartford, Wisconsin
A bumper crop of rhubarb and mint from my garden inspired me to create this thirst-quenching pick-me-up. Raspberries deepen the tea's vibrant red color, making the drinks a pretty addition to your table. —Laurie Bock, Lynden, Washington
I won a blue ribbon at our local fair for these tender cookies. They're so pretty with the ruby-red filling peeking through the dough. Try making these special cookies and watch the smiles appear. —Pauline Bondy, Grand Forks, North Dakota
I’ve baked this cake every spring for many years, and my family loves it! Use your own fresh rhubarb, hit up a farmers market or find a neighbor who will trade stalks for the recipe! —Helen Breman, Mattydale, New York
My friend Dave always brought two strawberry rhubarb cakes to work to celebrate his birthday. He’d use up rhubarb growing in the yard and treat his co-workers. —Charlene Schwartz, Maple Plain, Minnesota
My grandparents grew a ton of stuff in their garden, including rhubarb and strawberries. We typically baked it into pies and cobblers, but then Mom found this recipe and it became a fresh, new favorite. —LeeAnn McCue, Charlotte, North Carolina
The usual reaction to this casserole is that it’s a nice mix of sweet and tart—and an unusual use of rhubarb! I like rhubarb, but I’m not a dessert person. I always thought pies and cobblers shouldn’t be the only ways to enjoy it. —Jeanie Castor, Decatur, Illinois
Mom's yummy cobbler is a truly wonderful finale to any meal. This family favorite is sweet and tart, chock-full of berries and rhubarb, and the thick crust is so easy to make. —Susan Emery, Everett, Washington
We recently started growing our own rhubarb, and we live in a part of Oregon where strawberries are plentiful. I created this to drizzle over ice cream and filled a crisp with the rest. —Kim Banick, Salem, Oregon
Nothing hides the tangy rhubarb in this lovely pie, which has just the right balance of sweet and tart. Serving this dessert is a nice way to celebrate the end of winter! — Ellen Benninger, Greenville, Pennsylvania
My daughter makes this marmalade every spring when rhubarb's abundant. Our family enjoys her gift…a refreshing departure in flavor from all the berry jams and jellies. —Leo Nerbonne, Delta Juction, Alaska
An attractive dessert, this crisp is also a popular breakfast dish at our house, served with a glass of milk rather than topped with ice cream. Because it calls for lots of rhubarb, it's a great use for the bounty you harvest. —Rachael Vandendool, Barry's Bay, Ontario
I rely on a cake mix to speed the prep for this moist streusel-topped dessert that pairs tart rhubarb with sweet strawberries. It's great all by itself, but feel free to add some frosting or ice cream. —Jackie Heyer, Cushing, Iowa
I received this recipe from a friend about 15 years ago. It's a nice surprise for ketchup lovers, and so easy to prepare. The spicy flavor makes this one of the tastiest ketchups I've ever had! —Faith McLillian, Rawdon, Quebec
I came up with this recipe after hearing a friend fondly recall his grandmother's rhubarb dumplings. My son especially likes rhubarb, and this old-fashioned dessert lets those special stalks star.
-Beverly Shebs, Pinehurst, North Carolina
I like to take treats to my co-workers at the nursery/gift shop where I work. When rhubarb season arrives, I make this rich, sweet baklava so I can share the fruits of my garden. —Sue Bolsinger, Anchorage, Alaska
While growing up on a farm, I often ate rhubarb, so it's natural for me to use it in a pie. I prefer to use lard for the flaky pie crust and thin, red rhubarb stalks for the filling. These two little secrets helped this strawberry rhubarb pie recipe win top honors at the 2013 Iowa State Fair. —Marianne Carlson, Jefferson, Iowa
When I met my English husband and served him just the crumble, he said it was fantastic but really needed a custard sauce over it. We found a terrific sauce recipe from England, and now the pair is perfect together. I wouldn't serve it any other way. —Amy Freeman, Cave Creek, Arizona
I cook in a coffee shop, so I'm always looking for new and unique pies to serve my customers. The combination of blueberries and rhubarb in this recipe caught my eye and it was an instant best-seller. —Karen Dougherty, Freeport, Illinois
Every spring when her rhubarb was ready, my mother-in-law chopped it up for this moist cake. If your rhubarb is too tart for the sauce, just add in some strawberries. —Rena McCalment, Sharpsville, Indiana
My Grandma Dot used to make rhubarb compote and always had some in the freezer when I came to visit. This breakfast is a tribute to her. No two stalks of rhubarb are exactly alike, so make sure to taste the compote before you chill it. It should be tart, but sometimes it needs a little extra sugar. —Michael Hoffman, Brooklyn, New York
This tart and tangy fruit sauce is excellent over pound cake or ice cream. I have served this topping many times and have gotten rave reviews from friends and family. —Judith Wasman, Harkers Island, North Carolina
Spinach salad is excellent with this tangy topping, which really perks it up. A friend shared a similar salad dressing recipe with me and I modified it a bit. The rhubarb adds rosy color and mouthwatering flavor.—Twila Mitchell, Lindsborg, Kansas
At a retreat in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, I sampled a marmalade combining rhubarb and raisins. I loved it so much that I went home and tried to duplicate it. I added the strawberries to make the marmalade even sweeter. —Carmen Tuck, Airdrie, Alberta
Lindsay is a professional chef, recipe developer, writer and developmental editor. After years of working in restaurant kitchens, she turned to writing to share her skills and experience with home cooks and food enthusiasts. She's passionate about using local, organic ingredients and teaching others how to incorporate seasonal food into their diet. Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, writes for several publications and is the co-author of two books about Ayurveda.