Latin Name: Rheum x hybridum
Uses: vegetable (often used like a fruit)
What is rhubarb?
Rhubarb is an herbaceous perennial plant in the same family as sorrel and buckwheat. Though technically a vegetable, because of its intense sourness rhubarb is often treated like fruit: baked into pies and crumbles and used in sweetened drinks. Only the stalks, known as petioles, can be eaten. The leaves, flowers, and roots are not edible, though the roots are used medicinally in some cultures.
Why is rhubarb healthy?
Rhubarb is high in fiber, vitamins (especially K1 and C), and calcium. It also has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, and helps to regulate blood sugar and gastrointestinal function. There is some evidence that consuming too much rhubarb, especially raw, can damage the liver. (“Too much” is an awful lot, so you don't need to worry.)
What does rhubarb taste like?
Rhubarb stalks are intensely sour, with a uniquely savory fruitiness that blossoms when the tart is balanced with sweet. That acidity comes from oxalic and malic acids. Oxalic gives sorrel its lemony tang; malic makes apples tart. Though it’s frequently made into desserts, rhubarb’s acidity and complexity makes it a good addition to main dishes and salads as well.
How do I use rhubarb?
Rhubarb cooks quickly, getting very soft, so if you want a firmer texture you need to be careful or cook it at a precise temperature (around 140˚F/60˚C). When sweetening it, reach for brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup; the character of those ingredients will bring out more of rhubarb’s complexity. If using it in a savory dish, you can dial back the sugar significantly or omit it altogether. For example, instead of a squeeze of lemon on your asparagus, consider using rhubarb juiced, roasted, or cooked alongside the asparagus.
What does rhubarb pair well with?
Rhubarb’s culinary soulmate is the strawberry, but it also matches well with ginger, cream, vanilla, citrus, angelica, cardamom, black pepper, and seafood. (Remember: just about anywhere that lemon juice would work.)
Where does rhubarb grow?
Though its exact origins are unclear — it cross-pollinates readily, so tracing its genetic history is challenging — the first recorded use of rhubarb was in China over 2,000 years ago. Today rhubarb is cultivated widely throughout most of the northern hemisphere, where it’s one of the first crops to be harvested in the spring.
How to buy rhubarb:
Look for firm stalks that aren’t wrinkled or droopy.
Fun rhubarb fact:
Rha is the ancient Greek word for rhubarb, and also for the Volga river, indicating that the plant’s westward journey from China may have involved transport along that waterway. Rha barbaron means “foreign rhubarb,” likely referring to the more palatable domesticated cultivars that arrived from the east. Barbaron is the same word, meant to imitate babbling in a foreign tongue, that gave us barbarian.