Rhubarb can stir up some pretty strong feelings. Just ask around and you’ll see what I mean. Some people love it, others swear they’ll never eat it. My suspicion is that at least some of those reluctant to try rhubarb either aren’t entirely familiar with it or haven’t discovered its full potential. Rosy-red in color with a unique sweet-tart flavor, rhubarb can give a wonderful seasonal spark to just about any dessert; it’s just a matter of knowing how much sugar to add to balance its tartness and choosing flavor partners that enhance its elusive sweet edge. When the very first stalks of rhubarb show up at the market in early spring, I like to use it in classic desserts that everyone loves, from pies to crumbles, muffins, and compotes.
Botanically, it’s a vegetable. Although it’s usually treated as a fruit and used mainly in desserts, rhubarb is technically a vegetable. The edible parts are the fleshy celery-like stalks. If you grow your own, be aware that the green leaves are poisonous if eaten and need to be removed.
When shopping for rhubarb, look for firm, crisp, unblemished stalks with a bright, intense color. I prefer thinner stalks, as larger ones tend to be overly stringy and tough. Wrap the stalks tightly in plastic and refrigerate them. They should stay crisp for up to five days.
Grow your own
To have your own supply of rhubarb, plant roots in early spring; seeds take much longer to become established. It’s best to wait until the second year after planting to harvest, as the stalks usually aren’t thick and robust enough the first year. Rhubarb is a forgiving plant that can withstand a considerable amount of neglect. In fact, you might want to plant it in a spot where you won’t mind seeing it every year, as it will come back again and again.
You can also freeze sliced or diced rhubarb in plastic bags for up to six months. Frozen rhubarb tends to release more liquid and doesn’t hold its shape as well as fresh rhubarb, so use it where texture is not essential, as in my Cinnamon-Rhubarb Muffins.
To prep rhubarb for cooking, trim off the ends and any leaves still attached. Peel the fibrous exterior only if it’s very tough. Cut rhubarb as you would celery, into slices or small dice, depending on the recipe.
In the kitchen, it’s more like a fruit. The simplest way to cook rhubarb is to simmer it in a little liquid with sugar and other flavorings, as I do in the compote at right. You can also bake with rhubarb by adding it to cake or muffin batters, just as you would blueberries and other fruits.
In sweet preparations, rhubarb needs a good amount of sugar to balance its tartness. Cooking helps offset its natural astringency but also causes it to release a surprising amount of liquid. In compotes or sauces, where a juicy consistency is desirable, this is a boon. But if you’re making a filling for a pie or crumble, you need to add a thickener, such as cornstarch or tapioca, to prevent it from being too loose.
My favorite rhubarb desserts are simple and revolve around everyday pantry ingredients. I make a Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie that’s as easy as pie gets and all comfort. Sour cream adds richness to my Cinnamon Rhubarb Muffins, but it’s the juice released by the rhubarb that makes them so tender and moist that you can still serve them the next day. A generous amount of oatmeal streusel tops my Rhubarb Brown Sugar Crumble, providing a crunchy contrast to the tart, juicy filling. And my Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote comes together in a heartbeat and is extremely versatile. I spoon it over buttermilk cheesecake, ice cream, or a silky panna cotta. To tell you the truth, it even makes a delicious spread for a cold pork loin sandwich.
What pairs well with rhubarb?
Spring strawberries and rhubarb are a classic combination, but other sweet fruits such as peaches, apples, and pears make wonderful partners, too. Accent flavors like vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, ginger, orange juice, and orange zest as well as brown sugar make a nice complement, showing off rhubarb’s bright personality. Nuts provide great textural contrast.