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Rethinking Rhubarb

While the huge ruffled leaves of the rhubarb plant are truly impressive, they're not for eating. They contain oxalic acid, a toxin that should not be ingested in large amounts.

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By Ellen Jackson
from Fine Cooking #128, pp. 73-77

My earliest memory of rhubarb is a pink-tinged variation on applesauce that my grandmother made using the crimson stalks she grew in her Ohio garden. Indeed, most cooks think of rhubarb as a springtime treat, using it in sweets like pies, cobblers, and crisps, often in cahoots with strawberries to balance out its tart nature. But rhubarb is actually a bona fide vegetable (it’s closely related to sorrel), and as such, it delivers a citrusy punch that’s delicious in savory dishes, too.

Slideshow: Sweet-Tart Rhubarb Recipes

In desserts, rhubarb’s bracing natural acidity requires a generous hand with the sugar. My grandmother stewed pieces of rhubarb in plenty of sugar for her sweet sauce, which is how most rhubarb dessert recipes begin. In Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool, rhubarb is cooked until its tough fibers break down and collapse into a delicious mush, which is then stirred into whipped cream for that light and lovely old fashioned dessert. In a tart with roasted rhubarb and a streusel topping, where I want to see the shape of the rhubarb, I gently roast larger pieces, but those, too, get tossed with an ample amount of sugar.

For savory preparations, I try to take advantage of rhubarb’s tart bite. In a spiced chutney, rhubarb’s tartness is underscored by the addition of vinegar and balanced with a little honey for a sweet and sour condiment that’s perfect with grilled chicken or on a cheese plate. Rhubarb also perks up an earthy lentil and chard soup, holding its own when combined with other strong flavors like ginger, cumin, and chiles.

Whether you use your rhubarb for sweet or savory dishes, the way you choose and prep it stays the same. You can also freeze rhubarb for up to a year, but with so many ways to use it, it may not last nearly that long.

Featured recipes

Rhubarb Chutney     Roasted Rhubarb and Ginger Streusel Tart
Rhubarb Chutney     Roasted Rhubarb and Ginger Streusel Tart
Rhubarb Lentil Soup     Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool
Rhubarb Lentil Soup     Strawberry-Rhubarb Fool


Rhubarb How-to

  • Choose firm, unblemished stalks. The color, which can range from green streaked with pink to deep red, depending on the variety and the way it was grown, is not an indicator of ripeness or flavor. Fresher stalks will be more intensely colored.
  • Cut off and discard any leaves. Store unwashed rhubarb in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper bin, and use within a week.
  • Trim the ends and slice the stalk like celery to the size your recipe directs. If the stalk is very large, you may want to peel away the outer layer in case it’s stringy, but that’s not usually necessary.

Rhubarb freezes well
Frozen rhubarb thaws beautifully, and there’s little discernible difference between it and fresh, though frozen may release more liquid. To freeze, cut into pieces, spread in a layer on a rimmed baking sheet, and freeze until solid before transferring to a container for up to 6 months.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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