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What the heck is Rhubarb anyways?

Thu Oct 7

On a recent, and quite frankly long overdue, visit to see family, I noticed a rather large pile of rhubarb.

Although I knew a bit about this celery-looking plant, I had never actually eaten it myself. I knew that it could be used in pies, but does it have other uses? Could it be eaten raw? 

I really couldn’t have told you.

Seeing that stack of stalks and leaves (rhubarb has leaves?) made me want to find some answers to those questions. 

This is what I found.

What is rhubarb?

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that looks a lot like a redder, prettier version of celery. If you happen to come across some growing, you’ll see long, red (with a potential bit of pale pink or green) stalks and large leaves. Despite what we may be inclined to believe from this description though, rhubarb is actually a fruit. At least, in a manner of speaking.

Let me explain. 

While botanically speaking, rhubarb is indeed a vegetable complete with leaves, stalks, and roots, legally it’s classified as a fruit. A customs court ruled it as a fruit back in the late 40s and it’s still classified as that by the USDA.

When is it in season?

This plant is one that grows easily and well in cold temperatures. Depending on where you live, you might even find it growing in your backyard (in fact, good luck getting rid of it). The season will run from April to June in most places, but you may be picking for your pie as early as January.

In my own case though (which I’d like to emphasize as purely anecdotal) my family’s rhubarb harvest came about in late September.

Can I eat it raw?

Theoretically, eating rhubarb stalks raw is fine. That said, while you technically CAN eat raw rhubarb, whether you’d want to is an entirely different story. 

Your overall health might take a hit, but it’s entirely possible (even likely) that your taste buds won’t be so lucky. There’s a reason, rhubarb is served with sugar. That stuff is tart! If you’d like to try it, it may be a good idea to have sugar or honey on hand for dipping.

What you definitely do not want to eat, however, is the leaves. While there are plenty of veggies with delicious, nutritiously dense greens attached, rhubarb is not one of them. Its leaves are toxic. 

Is it healthy?

Provided you eat just the stalks, you can get a lot of nutrition from rhubarb. It’s rich in phytochemicals and one cup can give you almost half of your recommended vitamin K intake. The vitamin C content is none-too-shabby either.

How do I use it?

Rhubarb is most often used in pies, jams, cakes, and the like, but it can also be paired with savory meat dishes (provided you like a bit of tartness) or even be made into juice.

You can find two delicious recipes here.

Whatever you decide to make, you might want to keep a few things in mind:

  • If you want your rhubarb to be sweeter, look for a redder hue. If you want it to be more tender, seek out the medium-size stalks. Just don’t pick any soft, limp, or dry stalks. You want them to be crisp, firm, and upright.
  • Rhubarb will keep for about a week or two in the fridge when you store it in a plastic bag, but you can also freeze it for winter uses. Try cutting it into chunks for that latter option.
  • I know you know this by now, but make sure that you cut off all the leaves! Your stomach will not thank you for putting those into it. Of course, if you’re getting your rhubarb from a store, you probably won’t have to worry about that.
  • Remember to wash it. Here are some other prep tips as well.