Rhubarb
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Rhubarb, also known as the (“Pie Plant,” Chinese Rhubarb, Garden Rhubarb, Himalayan Rhubarb, Indian Rhubarb, Medicinal Rhubarb, Tai Huang, Turkey Rhubarb, etc), is the name given to a number of different plants in the genus Rheum in the Polygonaceae plant family. Common examples include: Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum officinale, Reum rhaponticum, Reum palmatum, etc.  Modern chefs use the Rhubarb Stalk (Petiole) in cooking.

Some natural medicine practitioners use the Rhubarb root and underground stalk (rhizome) as a laxative/purgative and to help with cold sores. Very few people use the Rhubarb leaves for anything because they contain so much Oxalic Acid (and other poisons) that 11 pounds (5 kg) of Rhubarb leaves can kill a human. Different strains have different levels of potency, so don’t push it. Also, no one publishes a safe dose of Rhubarb leaves. Smart Kitchen considers Rhubarb leaves poisonous.

The 4500 year History of Rhubarb, from Ancient Chinese herbal medicine to British dessert is interesting but we won’t go into it much in this general resource on Rhubarbs. To learn more about the history of Rhubarb follow the link just above.

Most of the world rightly considers Rhubarb a Vegetable because it has no seeds. In the U.S. though commerce and politics intervened and in 1947, a New York court ruled that Rhubarb, which was used similarly to a Fruit, was actually a fruit, for the purposes of code enforcement and import duties.

Some communities get very attached to Rhubarb.  A few even have Rhubarb Festivals, typically in early summer.

Season

Rhubarb’s season in North America is February - June, depending on the frost conditions. Rhubarb generally does not tolerate frost, so cooler may damage or delay the crop.

In the Northern Hemisphere Rhubarb is planted in the Fall (October/November) and harvested in the late Winter (February) through the early Summer (June).

Availability

With greenhouse production, Rhubarb is available throughout much of the year in most regions.

Cultivation

Rhubarb tolerates most soils but grows best on fertile, well-drained soils that are high in organic matter. A clean planting site is essential for the cultivation of Rhubarb, since no herbicides are registered for use on Rhubarb. Small areas of perennial weeds can quickly build up to serious proportions. To prevent this, all perennial weeds should be killed the year before planting. The fields should be cultivated in the spring and after cutting, and hand hoeing may also be necessary. Rhubarb is relatively free of insect and disease problems.

Rhubarb roots should be planted in early spring. Planting seeds is not recommended as it may take too long for the plants to become established, and the seedlings would not come true to color and size.

When planting Rhubarb, space its roots 24 to 48 inches (60-120 cm) apart in rows 3 to 4 feet
(1 m) apart for commercial growing. These distances can be decreased to 36 inches for plants in rows and rows for smaller gardens (non-commercial). Much smaller than this will seriously crowd the plants and result in a diminished crop and increase the likelihood of spreading disease.

Water the crowns after planting. Good garden drainage is also essential in growing Rhubarb. For home gardeners, planting in raised beds helps ensure against rotting of the crowns. Crowns will have longevity of many years, but because of diseases and insects, it is normal to reset a bed after 4-5 years.

For successful growth, Rhubarb requires temperatures below 40 °F (5 °C) to break dormancy and to stimulate spring growth and summer temperatures averaging less than 75 °F/24 °C for vigorous growth.

Production

Rhubarb is a perennial, and can be left in the ground between seasons. Rhubarbs have been known to return a crop for 10 to 15 years running. It is a very hardy crop, able to withstand a lack of water but freezing temperatures can really damage the exposed portions of the plant.

Rhubarb is grown in many areas around the world, including Asia, Europe and North America. A number of varieties have been domesticated for human consumption.

In the United States, there are about 1,300 acres currently in Rhubarb production. Sixty percent of that land is in Washington State. Oregon and California have the next largest acreage in production. There is even a small ½ acre plot in production in Black Forest, Colorado.

In England, Yorkshire is the leader in Rhubarb production.

Varieties

Rhubarb plants are all members of the Rheum genus within the Polygonaceae plant family. Over 100 species of Rhubarb are now known, mostly hybrids from the original Asian Rhubarbs imported to Europe after the Renaissance. Rhubarb also grows wild in Alaska and may be native to that region. 

Rhubarb varieties vary in appearance, taste, medicinal merit, yields, and date of harvest. The Chinese/Asian variants reportedly make the most potent herbal medicines. There is no known variance in food value among varieties although the Pure Red Rhubarbs (see below) are preferred aesthetically for some uses.

Broadly, Rhubarb species can be grouped into two categories: the Victoria Rhubarbs (stalks range in color) and the Pure Red Rhubarbs. All the plant types in both categories are still members of the Rheum genus but they have slightly different characteristics.

The Victoria Rhubarbs are the most common type of Rhubarb in cultivation in the U.S. They tend to be larger, more robust and relatively disease resistant. They also have higher farming yields. The stalk exteriors of Victoria Rhubarbs tend to range in color from pure green to light red, while the interiors are green.

The Pure Red Rhubarbs have deep red stalks, inside and out. They also tend to be smaller, less robust and more prone to disease. Their farming yields per acre are about one half those of the Victoria Rhubarbs. 

In the meantime, enjoy your rhubarb. It’s good for you! (high in calcium, vitamin C and fiber)

The most common Rhubarb varieties include: Chipman Rhubarb, Canada Red Rhubarb, Cherry Red Rhubarb, Crimson Red Rhubarb, Fraulein Sharfer Torte Rhubarb, German Wine Rhubarb, Holstein Bloodred Rhubarb, Macdonald Rhubarb, Mammoth Red Rhubarb, Prince Albert Rhubarb, Riverside Giant Rhubarb, Strawberry Rhubarb, Sunrise Rhubarb, Timperely Early Rhubarb, Valentine Rhubarb, and Large Victoria Rhubarb.

Purchasing

When shopping for Rhubarb in the produce aisle, look for firm, crisp stalks with a reddish appearance and a taut shiny skin. Rhubarb that appears rubbery, wilted, brown or dried out indicates that it has passed its prime. You may want to pass up especially fibrous stalks as they will make for tougher eating.

Storage

Wash the stalks well and trim off the dry ends and leaves, and store in loose plastic in the crisper drawer. It is best to clean and peel the Rhubarb stalks when you get them back into the house from the store. See Clean & Peel Celery to learn how, since the process is almost identical for both.

Once the Rhubarb leaves are removed and its stalks are thoroughly washed and cut, they can be preserved for several days by wrapping them in a damp paper towel and placing the Rhubarb and the towel in a plastic bag and storing it in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Stored this way, Rhubarb should last about 5-7 days.

If preparing to freeze Rhubarb stalks, clean and chop up the stalks before placing them in an air-tight freezer bag, where they can last up to one year in the freezer. If using frozen Rhubarb, wait until the pieces are thawed out and well-drained before using.

Culinary Uses

A Rhubarb plant basically has 3 parts: the stalks, roots, and leaves. Only the stalks (petioles) of Rhubarb are generally considered food. The stalks are crisp and naturally have a bitter/tart taste (from Oxalic Acid and Malic Acid).  Rhubarb stalks, whether used in Desserts or in a Side Dish, are almost always sweetened with Sugar. Sweetened Rhubarb stalks are frequently used to make Pies, Tarts, Cobblers, Sauces, etc. In fact, Rhubarb Pie is so popular that Rhubarb is sometimes known as “Pie Plant.” Rhubarb stalks are also used as a Flavoring Agent in various dishes.

The roots and underground stalks (rhizomes) are also consumed, but in moderation, as herbal remedies (see Nutrition below).

The Rhubarb leaves are considered toxic because they have a much higher level of Oxalic Acid than the stalks. The leaves also contain some other poisons as well. 11 Pounds (5kg) or less of Rhubarb leaves contain enough Oxalic Acid to kill a person, even before considering the other poisons.

The sweet and tart flavors of Rhubarb lend well to many dishes from savory main courses and side dishes to sweet sauces, jams and pies.

Rhubarb is best Stewed or Braised with a sweetener, and potentially, other complementary sweet Fruits, such as Strawberries.

When cooked “Low & Slow,” Rhubarb stalks falls apart into fibrous shreds and the Rhubarb gets juicy, gels and thickens. Well-cooked Rhubarb has the perfect jelly-like consistency to make it a great ingredient for Compotes, Jams and Chutneys.

Rhubarb does not “present” well though as a stand-alone item or as a featured ingredient in a dish like Stir Fry or even if arranged for Flair on a Tart. The problem with it as a stand-alone item, Grilled or Sautéed, for example, is the native bitterness.

When Preparing Rhubarb, try to prep it A Minute (or just before use) so that the pieces stay moist and retain more of their nutrients. Prepare Rhubarb much as you would Clean & Peel Celery. The process is almost identical. Remember to dispose of the Rhubarb leaves, as they are considered poisonous.

Once cleaned and peeled, Rhubarb is usually Chopped into a Large Dice/Carré for Simmering, Braising or Stewing. Smart Kitchen has a recipe for Sweetening Rhubarb, that describes the typical process of balancing out the bitter flavor. We also like to use Rhubarb in a Cold Rhubarb Soup with Mint or as Stewed Rhubarb.

A pound of fresh Rhubarb (about 3 C of Rhubarb when Chopped into a Large Dice), will need about half a cup of Simple Syrup (¼ C of water and ¼ C of the desired sweetener) to balance out the bitter taste. Scale up or scale down depending on your needs. Sweeteners used to make the Simple Syrup can include: White Sugar, Brown Sugar, Honey, Maple Syrup, Fruit Juice or any combination of any of them.

Make the Simple Syrup by bringing the water and the sweetener to a Boil on Medium High Heat. Reduce the heat to a Simmer once a Boil is achieved. Let the Simple Syrup Simmer until the sweetener is dissolved (you no longer see any sugar granules). Once it cools, you could bottle the mixture and hold it as a Simple Syrup, but we have a need for it, so let it continue to Simmer while you finish the preparation work by breaking down the Rhubarb.

While the mixture heats and Simmers you should have time to clean and peel the Rhubarb (the same way we Clean & Peel Celery).

When you are ready to add the Rhubarb to the Simmering Simple Syrup, break it down into a Carré with your Chef’s Knife.  The process is almost identical to how you would Bâtonnet Celery and then take it to a Dice, except that here you will be making a Pont Neuf (¼” larger) and then cutting down that Log Cut to make a Carré.

Once the Rhubarb is completely prepped, stir the Diced Rhubarb into the Simple Syrup. The temperature will drop and you will want to increase the heat to return the combined mixture to a Simmer. Simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes or until the Rhubarb is cooked and Knife Tender.

Once cooked, remove the Sweetened Rhubarb from the heat and serve it warm or cold, as desired. Sweetened Rhubarb should be stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator, where it will hold for up to 7 days.

Portion Size

Allow 1-2 oz of Rhubarb per person.

Pairings

Nuts-Almonds, Hazelnuts, Peanuts, Pecans

Fruits-Apples, Blood Orange, Lemons, Limes, Raspberries, Plums, Strawberries, Grapefruits

Dairy-Butter, Buttermilk, Blue Cheese, Cream, Ice Cream, Cream Cheese, Crème Fraiche, Mascarpone, Sour Cream

Herbs & Spices- Angelica, Bay Leaf, Cardamom, Chives, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg, Pepper, Salt, Mint, Spearmint, Sugar

Vegetables-Fennel, Garlic, Ginger, Onions

Protein-Duck, Eggs, Foi Grais, Mild Fish, Gamebirds, Pork, Trout

Oils-Olive Oil, Peanut Oil

Other-Brandy, Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate, Oatmeal, Port, Grand Marnier, Pastries, Maple Syrup

Nutritional Value USDA
RHUBARB,RAW
Amount Per 100g
Calories 21
%Daily Value*
 
0%
Total Fat 0g
0%
Saturated Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0g
Monounsaturated Fat 0g
0%
Cholesterol 0mg
0%
Sodium 4mg
6%
Potassium 288mg
1%
Total Carbohydrate 4g
4%
Dietary Fiber 1g
Sugars 1g
Protein 0g
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Nutrition

For those watching their weight, Rhubarb is 95% water and is one of the lowest calorie vegetables out there. There are just 21 calories in 3.5 oz (100 g) of Rhubarb (the stalks or petioles) and no Saturated Fats or Cholesterol.

Rhubarb is better than just low in calories, it is also chock-full of vital phyto-nutrients, as well as – vitamins, minerals, Dietary Fiber and poly-phenolic anti-oxidants.

Rhubarb stalks are rich in B-complex vitamins, such as folates, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, thiamin and pantothenic acid. Note that the redder stalks contain more vitamin A than the greener varieties. As with other greens, such as Kale or Spinach, Rhubarb stalks also provide good amounts of vitamin K which is important for bone health and bone strengthening.

Finally, Rhubarb stalks contain many beneficial minerals like Calcium, Phosphorus and Iron.

Rhubarb rhizome (the root and the stalk below ground) is often crushed and dried to a powder and used as a purgative and a laxative. Rhubarb powder is used in herbal medicine for digestive complaints including: constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, stomach pain, gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, and preparation for certain GI diagnostic procedures. Some people take Rhubarb to decrease their need to strain during bowel movements. Various species of Rhubarb are more or less potent than others.

Rhubarb powder is sometimes applied to the skin to treat cold sores.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes