What Is Rhubarb?

Fun fact: the USDA classifies it as a fruit, but it’s really a vegetable.

October 27, 2021

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Large heap of fresh ripe organic rhubarb on farmer market in Paris, France

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Large heap of fresh ripe organic rhubarb on farmer market in Paris, France

Photo by: encrier/Getty Images

encrier/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Rhubarb is a tell-tale sign of spring. But what exactly is it? We get into all the details below, including what to cook with it.

What Is Rhubarb?

Rhubarb is a spring vegetable, one of the few that is still truly seasonal. The edible part of this perennial plant is the vibrant pink stalk, which is almost always cooked with lots of sugar because it is very sour.

Fresh rhubarb and strawberries on a wooden underground

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Fresh rhubarb and strawberries on a wooden underground

Photo by: Christian-Fischer/Getty Images

Christian-Fischer/Getty Images

What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?

Raw rhubarb is quite sour, just as mouth-puckering as lemon. Eating raw rhubarb stalks is completely safe and we recommend trying a little slice the next time you’re cooking with it just to experience its purest flavor.

What rhubarb tastes like is really a question about what it tastes like when it’s cooked with sugar to make it palatable. Then, it tastes pleasantly tart - a bit like green apple - with a very tiny hint of vegetal celery flavor. Many people associate the flavor of rhubarb with strawberries because the two are often paired together (they come into season at the same time, and strawberry's sweet flavor helps counteract the sour one of rhubarb).

Red stalks have a stronger, sweeter more robust flavor than green stalks, but both are totally fine to cook with.

When Is Rhubarb In Season?

The pretty stalks come into season in late March to early April and stick around until the beginning of June. Many consider their season to be fleeting. To preserve rhubarb, you could make Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam, but freezing it gives you more options so check out Can You Freeze Rhubarb? Hint: Yes.

Is Rhubarb a Vegetable or a Fruit?

Rhubarb is a vegetable often thought to be a fruit. There's actually a good reason for this confusion: in 1947 the USDA classified it as a fruit because the tariffs on bringing fruits into the country were lower on fruits than vegetables. In actuality though, rhubarb is a vegetable - a member of the buckwheat family.

An overhead close up shot of a strawberry rhubarb pie and a slice.

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An overhead close up shot of a strawberry rhubarb pie and a slice.

Photo by: DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

DebbiSmirnoff/Getty Images

What Is Rhubarb Used For?

A widely recognized way to serve rhubarb is in strawberry-rhubarb pie. There are a few reasons for this: the two types of produce come into to their peak seasons at the same time, the sweet berries balance rhubarb's sourness and rhubarb - when cooked with sugar - helps gel strawberries so they don't turn into a saucy mess when you slice the pie.

Rhubarb is often seen as jam or compote with or without strawberries. In addition, it's used in many different types of sweet desserts, from pies and tarts to cakes and cookies.

Beyond dessert, there are many savory uses for rhubarb. We’ve seen it a tagine in place of preserved lemon, as an ingredient in chutney or used in braises like short ribs. When rhubarb is in season, chefs have a hay day turning it into all sorts of creative dishes, including cocktails even.

Bright red organic rhubarb stalks shooting from the vegetable garden.

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Bright red organic rhubarb stalks shooting from the vegetable garden.

Photo by: cjp/Getty Images

cjp/Getty Images

Is Rhubarb Poisonous?

The stems of rhubarb are the edible part of the plant, but steer clear of the leaves and roots - they are high in oxalic acid, a dangerous toxin that can cause a host of symptoms, none of them good. Not only poisonous for humans, the leaves are also poisonous for most animals. If you're growing rhubarb and it freezes, do not eat it at all: the oxalic acid could have easily moved down into the stalks from the leaves.

Most rhubarb you buy at the supermarket already has its leaves and roots removed so you don't accidentally eat them.

Rhubarb Recipes 

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Photo by: Steve Giralt

Steve Giralt

The gold standard when it comes to making a rhubarb dessert, this Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie is even more fabulous because it’s got a lattice crust.

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The contrast of crunchy crumble topping and ooey-gooey sweet rhubarb makes this dessert a great option when you don’t have time to make a pie. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is probably going to be required as a go-with.

Look for the thinnest, reddest stalks of rhubarb you can find for this creamy custard pie: they’re more tender and more flavorful.

Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcake

Strawberry Rhubarb Shortcake

Cake flour is one of the reasons this shortcake is so light and delicate, the perfect way to sandwich the strawberry and rhubarb filling.

STRAWBERRY RHUBARB UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE,

STRAWBERRY RHUBARB UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE,

Photo by: Matt Armendariz

Matt Armendariz

The classic combo of strawberries and rhubarb, this time in a cake that’s reminiscent of a coffee cake due to the sour cream in the batter.

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