The tart flavor of rhubarb is probably best known as a companion to sweet berries in pies and jams. But if you’re growing rhubarb in your garden or yard, there are many other ways to save and savor this prolific late spring vegetable, from teas to confections.
From its Himalayan home, robust rhubarb got a lift to Europe with Marco Polo and was introduced in America around 1820. Hardy and resilient, it is now grown in temperate climates around the world. One of only a few perennial vegetables, rhubarb plants often produce for years with little care.
Growing rhubarb is easy in climates that are cold enough to grow tulips as perennials, or in Zones 3 to 7. The plants must have a cold-induced period of winter rest, and they also suffer when temperatures rise above 90°F (32°C). In the northern half of North America, rhubarb plants can be phenomenally productive, yielding stalk after stalk for pies, preserves, baked goods, and teas. The vegetable’s sour lemony flavor is due in large part to oxalic acid, which reaches toxic levels in rhubarb leaves. Rhubarb leaves should never be eaten but are perfectly safe to use as compost or mulch.
Best Rhubarb for the Homegrown Pantry
Rhubarb varieties vary in stem color, vigor, and heat tolerance, but the differences are small.
Two older varieties that have stood the test of time, ‘Victoria’ and ‘McDonald’, produce light green stalks tinged with red. The vigorous, disease-resistant plants are good choices for hot summer areas, though they thrive in colder climates, too.
Red stalk color is more pronounced in rhubarb varieties that can do double duty as edible ornamentals, such as ‘Crimson Red’ and STARKRIMSON (‘K-1’). While red rhubarb is often preferred in markets, red stem color has no bearing on flavor.
If one of your neighbors is growing rhubarb, you may be able to get an excellent locally adapted strain for the asking. Most gardeners with established plants have plenty of divisions that can be cut off and shared.
Rhubarb Food Preservation Options
Rhubarb is famous for producing too well, which is not a problem if you store the excess in a variety of ways. Rhubarb can be frozen, canned, or dried. Sugar is a major ingredient in most rhubarb recipes, but a few preservation methods require no sugar, such as drying small pieces to use in tea or freezing the juice to use as a lemon juice substitute.
Rhubarb is easy to freeze, with no blanching required. However, because rhubarb softens as it thaws, it is best to remove strings and have pieces cut the way you want them before you put them in the freezer. Freeze the pre-cut vegetable on cookie sheets and transfer the frozen pieces to freezer-safe containers.
To save space, you can freeze unsweetened rhubarb juice, which can be used in place of lemon juice in hundreds of recipes. Cook chunks of rhubarb in just enough water to cover until soft, about 20 minutes. Mash gently with a fork. Strain the mixture through a strainer, and freeze the liquid in ice cube trays.
If you take warm rhubarb juice and mix it with an equal measure of sugar, you will have rhubarb syrup, which can serve as the base for many great drinks. Adding only a light splash of syrup turns sparkling water into soda, or you can use it to make sweet not-really lemonade or lemon tea. Freeze the syrup in ice cube trays, or can it in small half-pint jars. Process them in a water-bath or steam canner for 10 minutes.
In addition to canning versatile syrup, many families treasure their homemade rhubarb-strawberry jam or rhubarb-ginger marmalade, which always turn out good because common recipes contain large amounts of sugar — usually more sugar than fruit. Strawberries, raspberries, or cherries bring a soft juiciness to rhubarb jam, and you can make rhubarb-and berry jams using low-sugar pectin products.
Thin slices of rhubarb are fast and easy to dry in a food dehydrator. The dried pieces of stalk make an excellent addition to herb teas by giving every brew a citrusy edge. And should you be making a recipe that calls for lemon and you have none, a few little nuggets of dried rhubarb can fill the need.
Candying is a form of drying, and it is one of very few drying recipes that can be done in a warm oven that can be kept below 180°F (80°C). If you like sour candies, you will love candied rhubarb.
Chewy Candied Rhubarb
Makes about 1 quart
- 2 cups sugar
- ½ cup water
- 4 large stalks rhubarb
- In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium heat until the sugar melts.
- Trim the strings from the rhubarb, and either slice it diagonally into ⅛-inch slices or use a vegetable peeler to cut 6-inch-long pieces into thin strips. Place the rhubarb in the warm syrup, and toss with your hands to coat all the pieces. Allow to sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Arrange the sugared pieces of rhubarb on dehydrator trays and dry at medium heat (125 to 135°F/50 to 60°C) for a few hours, checking them each hour. When the pieces become leathery, turn off the heat and allow them to rest for an hour before removing them from the trays. If they are entirely too sticky to handle, place the trays in the freezer for an hour, and then use a spatula to gently loosen the pieces. Store in the freezer, or dry the pieces a little more, until they are no longer sticky, and store in vacuum-sealed bags kept in a cool, dry place.