Rhubarb: A spring-time delicacy with pucker power

Rhubarb is thriving in home gardens this time of year. When little else is available in the garden to eat, rhubarb gets us ready for even more Michigan grown foods.

Fresh rhubarb stalks chopped up.
Fresh rhubarb stalks chopped up.

Rhubarb is a springtime delicacy that is classified by botanists as a vegetable, but because it is so popular in desserts, it is often recognized as a fruit by many consumers. Rhubarb is traditionally made into sauce or pie, this led to it getting the nickname “pie plant.” 

Hothouse, or forced, rhubarb is a pink to rosy-red color all the way to the leaf. It will have a milder, more delicate flavor than field or homegrown rhubarb. Use hothouse rhubarb only when fresh because it loses color rapidly when canned or frozen. Medium to thick stalks are best to use because they are the most tender. 

Fresh field or homegrown rhubarb is available late April through June. It can be mostly green or have a rosy to dark red color and have medium to thick stalks. Homegrown rhubarb is more tender than hothouse, however, both provide a tasty source of calcium and potassium. 

Remember to cut off and compost, or discard, all rhubarb leaves when you harvest rhubarb. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid which is harmful to eat.

Enjoy rhubarb in pies and muffins or as a sauce

When rhubarb is combined with strawberries, raspberries, apples and other fruits, the flavor only gets better. Rhubarb also makes a terrific sauce for chicken, venison, halibut and salmon. Adding diced rhubarb to muffins and biscuit recipes not only adds nutritional value but makes the muffins and biscuits sing with flavor without making the batter runny.

Store rhubarb in the fridge

Stalks of rhubarb can be placed in a perforated plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator crisper for two to four weeks. If you add a wet paper towel to the bag of rhubarb, it will help to keep the rhubarb from drying out.

Preserve rhubarb by freezing

Freeze homegrown rhubarb early in the season when the color is best and the stalks are almost tender. Freezing rhubarb is easy. Just rinse stalks well, dry them with a paper towel and cut them into one or two-inch pieces to fit your freezer containers or freezer bags. If you have an amount you need for a favorite pie, crisp or bread recipe, you can measure that amount into the freezer bag and label it with the date and amount, then when you take it out of the freezer you won’t have to measure the rhubarb before adding it to your recipe. You can also make cooked rhubarb sauce; pack it into containers, leaving one-half inch headspace, label and freeze. 

Michigan State University Extension’s MI Fresh, has a range of information and resources about Michigan’s bounty of fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and ornamentals. Here you will find information on recommended varieties, storage, food safety and preserving techniques for many fruits and vegetables.

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