Spring’s here and that means rhubarb. If you can’t get enough of its puckery sourness in desserts, sauces, and even cocktail recipes, you’ve found kindred souls. Here’s everything you need to know to buy, store, and freeze rhubarb to ensure you have some on hand all year long.
1. When is rhubarb season?
The season for field-grown rhubarb is February to June and it typically reaches peak abundance April through June. Hothouse rhubarb, in theory, is available year-round, although at most supermarkets the only place you’ll find rhubarb in October is the freezer case.
2. Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit
The iconic ruby-stalked plant known as rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is actually an easy-to-grow–are you ready?–vegetable. Yep. According to its botanical definition, rhubarb is a vegetable because it consists of roots, stems, and leaves. It’s technically a member of the buckwheat family.
However, The Great Rhubarb Controversy legally overturned that in 1947 when a New York customs court deemed that since Americans cooked rhubarb primarily as a fruit, it should be considered a fruit. What really drove the decision was money. ( If rhubarb was considered a vegetable, imports from Canada would be taxed at 50%, while only 35% if it were classified as a fruit. Go figure.
3. Rhubarb leaves are toxic
Yep. They could even be deadly. Those impressive, fan-shaped leaves contain dangerously high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause irreversible kidney damage that could lead to death. Now, granted, an average-sized person would have to eat about 10 pounds of the stuff in order to croak. Still, even a small amount can make you sick. And don’t forget the fur babies; the leaves are just as toxic to dogs and cats. An important note: When you’re at the market, make sure not to confuse rhubarb and red Swiss chard as they’re somewhat similar in appearance.
4. How to select rhubarb
Rhubarb’s stalks fall into two distinct categories: those grown in hothouses and those grown in the field. Hothouse rhubarb has pale-pink to pale-red stalks and yellowish-green leaves. The stalks of field-grown rhubarb are usually ruby-red with green leaves. For the most part, hothouse rhubarb (which is what you find at most supermarkets) has a milder, less puckery flavor.
And what of those occasional green stalks? Some cultivars of rhubarb are more green than pink or red. And, surprisingly, they can sometimes be sweeter than their blushing cousins. No matter where you buy rhubarb or what its color, you want to make certain it’s tender but firm and crisp.
☞TESTER TIP: If color is important in the recipe, such as a jam or compote, use red-stemmed rhubarb. If that’s not possible, pairing rhubarb with red fruit, such as strawberries or raspberries, helps.
5. How to store rhubarb
If the rhubarb you buy comes with leaves, cut them off and toss them out. (See #2 for the reason. Bear in mind, the leaves are safe to toss in the compost.) To store rhubarb stalks, wrap them well in plastic wrap or, better yet, stash them in reusable storage bags and refrigerate them for up to 3 weeks.
6. How to freeze rhubarb
Craving the sweet-tart flavor of rhubarb all summer long? We’ve got you covered. Freezing rhubarb is simple.
- First, carefully wash and dry the stalks.
- Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces.
- Scatter them on parchment-lined baking sheets and freeze them. (This helps them freeze individually, so you don’t end up with a frozen rhubarb brick.)
- Drop the frozen pieces in freezer bags, label the bag, and toss them back in the freezer.
7. Now comes the best part: cooking!
We have tons of rhubarb recipes that take full advantage of the season’s earliest and freshest flavor. We have a lot of favorite rhubarb recipes, although some of the ones we make can be found below.
Originally published May 14, 2021