Your Guide to Rhubarb, the 'Pie Plant' of Spring

Rhubarb is a vegetable often used like a fruit in desserts and baked goods. But don’t limit it to sweet foods—this tart stalk has plenty more to offer!

Stalks of rhubarb

Lori Rice

People are rarely indifferent to rhubarb.

Rhubarb lovers are passionate in their devotion to this charmingly offbeat vegetable-masquerading-as-a-fruit, whether it’s baked in pies and crumbles or made into sour, fizzy drinks. As for those who don’t care for it? It’s possible they just haven’t had their magic rhubarb moment yet.

Let’s get to know what some affectionately call the “pie plant.”

stalks of pink and green rhubarb

Lori Rice

When is Rhubarb in Season?

Rhubarb is associated with spring and is best April through June. It’s often forced (i.e. grown under a cover) for early harvest. Forced rhubarb has a milder flavor and is savored by those eager to welcome the first produce of the season.

Rhubarb will keep producing into the fall. The stalks will be heartier, but still very much worth preparing.

Rhubarb Varieties

Rhubarb is usually a pinkish ruby-red, but there are green varieties. Despite the color difference, the flavor is usually the same.

Red green rhubarb stalks

Lori Rice

What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?

Rhubarb is tart. It’s in the same family as sorrel and has the familial pucker power of oxalic acid.

Where to Buy Rhubarb

In most grocery stores, rhubarb is sold loose. Find it fresh in the produce section in long stalks. Farmers markets are great places to buy rhubarb; there they’re usually sold by the bunch. Look for firm stalks without blemishes.

Rhubarb is not challenging to grow, though a plant will take up a good amount of space in a garden. You can propagate it from seed, but the easiest way is to ask a friend who grows it to divide their existing plant and give part of it to you to plant.

How to Store Rhubarb

When you bring rhubarb home from the store, remove any ties or rubber bands. Don’t wash it or cut it until you plan to cook it. Refrigerate it in a plastic bag or reusable cloth produce bag and it will keep 1-2 weeks in the crisper drawer.

Green ends of rhubarb

Lori Rice

How to Prep and Cook Rhubarb

First things first: Rhubarb leaves are toxic, whether raw or cooked. Rhubarb is usually sold with the leaves trimmed off, but if it has leaves attached, cut them off and discard them.

Before using rhubarb, trim off the low end of the stalk, which is usually paler than the rest of the stalk, then trim off the tips of the stems. Rinse the rhubarb and cut it as the recipe directs. (Rhubarb stalks have a lot of fiber, so it’s best to cut across the grain to minimize stringiness after cooking.)

The part of rhubarb that we eat are the stems, and those stems are almost always cooked. You can eat rhubarb raw in great moderation, though it’s tart enough most people would prefer not to.

Many cooking methods suit rhubarb. You can add it raw to batters and fillings for baked desserts. You can simmer rhubarb with sugar and a little water to make a quick rhubarb sauce or poach it in wine. Rhubarb falls apart easily; for a different texture, toss it with sugar and roast it.

If you have a bumper crop of rhubarb, freeze it. Cut it into desired lengths and freeze it raw and unwashed in zip-top freezer bags for up to 6 months. Rinse before using.

Crumble Bars with Rhubarb and Strawberry
Irvin Lin

Rhubarb Recipes

When used in desserts, rhubarb is often combined with other fruits—strawberries are a classic pairing – but don’t let that limit you. Rhubarb plays nicely with everything from blueberries to raspberries to apples.

Rhubarb is enough of a superstar it can hold its own without other fruits, though. It pairs magically with dairy for a splendid fool, or with custard in pie.

Rhubarb has a savory side. Make a quick rhubarb sauce to serve with seafood or pork. To be especially bold, try pickling it for a crisp, refreshingly unusual treat. A spring delight is to sauté asparagus and rhubarb segments of the same length together, using one part asparagus to one part rhubarb.