Rhubarb first appeared in North America in the late 1700s when it was introduced by a Maine gardener who obtained the seed from Europe. Within 25 years, it had become so popular that it was a regular offering at produce markets. In its early years, rhubarb was primarily used for pies, earning it the nickname “pie plant.” Today, rhubarb is used in pies, tarts and sauces; it also has a home in both sweet and savory dishes.
Vegetable or Fruit?
Like the tomato, rhubarb’s identity is a bit controversial. Botanically speaking, rhubarb is a vegetable, but most people consider it a fruit. In fact, in 1947, a New York court decided that since Americans primarily used it as a fruit, it would be considered a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. Whichever it is, it’s delicious.
Rhubarb has “celery-like” stalks that fall into two distinct types: hothouse and field grown. The hothouse variety has pink to pale red stalks and yellow-green leaves. Field grown stalks are usually red with green leaves. Generally, hothouse rhubarb has a milder flavor. When buying or picking rhubarb, look for crisp, bright colored young stalks that are tender and firm. Leaves should look fresh and blemish-free.
Begin by cutting off the leaves and discarding them. Never eat the leaves. Although herbal remedies use the leaves and roots, they contain high levels of oxalic acid and other compounds that are toxic to humans.
Store the stalks in sealed plastic bags and place them in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to one week. When you’re ready to use them, wash and cut the stalks into1/2-inch to 1-inch pieces. Rhubarb is very acidic so make sure you cook it only non-aluminum pots. Both cooked and raw rhubarb freeze well, so you can enjoy it year-round.
Rhubarb sauce is easy to make and only requires the addition of water and sugar. Make sure you don’t use too much water; rhubarb stalks already contain a great deal of it.
Add ½ to ¾ cup sugar for each pound of rhubarb cooked. Add cinnamon or nutmeg to taste. Boil until the sliced stalks are soft and the sauce is smooth. The sauce is similar in texture to applesauce and is usually stored in the refrigerator and eaten cold.
Try this recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with a lattice crust. You'll be proud to share this one with friends and neighbors.
Rhubarb has great versatility. Its tart flavor works well for crisps, muffins and coffee cakes. A favorite Land O'Lakes rhubarb recipes is Aunt Emma’s Rhubarb Custard Dessert. This custard dessert is great for a big crowd or a special occasion.
Another Test Kitchen favorite is Rhubarb Cookie Cake. You can serve this cookie cake throughout rhubarb season, as a coffee cake, afternoon treat or dinner dessert.
Whatever the occasion, rhubarb can be a delicious part of any meal. So make mouths happy and give this old fashioned vegetable—or fruit— a try this spring. For more great ideas on how to use rhubarb, browse our Rhubarb Recipe Collection.