What the Heck Is Rhubarb—and What Can You Do With It?

Rhubarb is weird. Everyone kind of knows what it is, but it’s still largely a mystery to a lot of people. Like, you’ve probably eaten a piece of rhubarb pie or slice of rhubarb cake—but when was the last time you actually bought it from the store or farmers market? Can you even answer the question, “What is rhubarb?”

If you’re ashamed of your rhubarb knowledge (or lack thereof), don’t worry. You’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.

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What Is Rhubarb—and What Does It Look Like?

Throughout history, rhubarb has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Although you can eat rhubarb raw, you probably won’t enjoy it. It has a sour, brutally bitter taste, so most people prefer to cook it with sugar.

Rhubarb became a popular addition to pies and other desserts in the 18th and 19th centuries after sugar became widely available in England. Today, rhubarb is used in a similar way—and is commonly paired with strawberries to balance its sour-bitter flavor.

Rhubarb looks kind of like celery, but prettier. Take a look:

We only eat the pink stalks of the rhubarb plant—the triangular leaves contain high levels of a poisonous chemical called oxalic acid. So, yeah, stick to the stalk.

Is Rhubarb a Fruit or a Vegetable?

Here’s where things get confusing: Contrary to popular belief, rhubarb is technically a vegetable. Legally, though, it’s a fruit.

In 1947, a New York court actually made the distinction. The reason being, rhubarb is most often cooked as fruit in the United States. It’s worth mentioning that this declaration did save businesses who imported rhubarb from spending more money on taxes, and that could’ve played a role in the final decision.

When Is Rhubarb in Season?

Although you can sometimes buy rhubarb as early as February, rhubarb season runs from April through June. The stalks you find in late winter/early spring are tender and delicate, while those that are available in late spring/early summer are more robust and flavorful.

Related: Why Rhubarb is the Best Vegetable You Can Eat Right Now

How to Pick Rhubarb

Look for plump, firm, and crisp stalks. If the leaves are still attached, they should be fresh-looking and not wilted.

Rhubarb can range in color from pale green to deep red. Opt for the dark red stalks if you can—these are sweeter with a more intense flavor. If there aren’t any available, though, green is perfectly fine.

How to Cook Rhubarb

Rhubarb can roasted, sauteed, stewed, or pureed. Stewing rhubarb is one of the easiest and most common ways to cook it, as well as one of the most versatile ways to serve it. Pour stewed rhubarb over ice cream, drizzle it onto pancakes, or even incorporate it into cocktails.

Usually, the stalks are cut into small pieces and stewed with sugar until softened. Keep in mind: rhubarb has a high water content, so you’ll likely need to use less water during cooking than you’d expect.

To cook stewed rhubarb:

  1. Before you do anything, remove the toxic leaves. Do not eat them under any circumstances. If you don’t want to throw them away, you can compost them or use them as garden mulch.
  2. Chop the rinsed rhubarb stalks into small pieces (about an inch long each should be fine).  
  3. Mix the pieces with about one part water and eight parts sugar. (1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons water for 6 cups rhubarb)
  4. Simmer over low-medium heat for about 15 minutes and let cool.

Rhubarb Recipes

Put your new rhubarb education to good use—experiment with a few of our favorite rhubarb recipes this spring.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pretzel Pie

Strawberry-Rhubarb Salad

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake 

Roasted Spring Lamb With Fennel, Rhubarb, and Strawberries

Raspberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Roasted Strawberry-Rhubarb Muffins with Pistachio Streusel

Check out our complete collection of rhubarb recipes for more delicious and easy ideas.

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