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How to Harvest & Prepare Rhubarb for Cooking, Baking, & Freezing

Butterfly has been gardening and preserving food of all kinds for many years, and she thrives on the creativity involved in these processes.

The Rhubarb Plant and Root, Early Spring

The rhubarb plant

The rhubarb plant

What Can You Make With Rhubarb?

Rhubarb is an easily established plant which can be used in pies, jams, crisps, breads, and other desserts. It can also be added to lemonades and punches.

Rhubarb's taste is tart and acidic, which some find to be overwhelming, and others find to be delightful. I am a firm believer that everyone should try a rhubarb pie at least once.

A Mid-Spring Rhubarb Plant

A typical rhubarb plant. These plants need virtually no cultivation, and small care once they are established.

A typical rhubarb plant. These plants need virtually no cultivation, and small care once they are established.

Quick Reference for Rhubarb Prep

~ 1 pound of stalks per 3 cups chopped stem pieces

~ Chop tiny pieces for cakes and breads, 1/2-inch or larger for pies and similar

~ Freeze without blanching

~ May be canned (steam canned or waterbath method)

~ Stems only, please (discard leaves and root ends)

What Part of the Plant Should Be Used?

As children, my cousins and siblings and I spent many sunny afternoons wandering over my grandma's farmyard, chomping stalks of raw rhubarb, which grew in profusion both along the garden fence and down by the grain bins. We girls held the large leaves above us and pretended they were parasols. We minced along like fine ladies. But Grandma warned us strictly never to eat the leaves: "They're poisonous!"

As an adult, I found out that the whole plant is mildly toxic when eaten raw--including the stalks. But obviously the stalks are not poisonous enough to do great damage. The leaves, which seem to have greater toxicity, should always be discarded. Do not compost them--their toxins will not be destroyed by the composting process, and may do damage when used in the garden.

So only the stalks are used in cooking and baking. I'll show you how to prepare them, for either fresh use or preservation by canning, freezing, or drying.

What About Flowers?

Depending on the weather and soil conditions, a rhubarb patch will sometimes flower. These flowers can grow new plants, though this is not dependable.

In any case, stalks which have flowered are not suitable for eating. They are likely to be tough and unpalatable, and may have lost their savor. Naturally, the plant is trying to finish maturing, and doesn't wish to be bothered with providing in other ways at this time.

Tender stalks and those which have flowered may be found on the same plant.

A Wild Patch of Rhubarb

A wild rhubarb patch on an old farmstead in May 2013. That autumn, a sand storm almost eradicated these plants. There was nothing visible in 2014.

A wild rhubarb patch on an old farmstead in May 2013. That autumn, a sand storm almost eradicated these plants. There was nothing visible in 2014.

The same patch in July 2019. These flower stalks are five feet tall. There are old fashioned iris in the foreground.

The same patch in July 2019. These flower stalks are five feet tall. There are old fashioned iris in the foreground.

These plants have reseeded and propogated themselves by root expansion through many years and much extremely harsh weather.

These plants have reseeded and propogated themselves by root expansion through many years and much extremely harsh weather.

You can see how the stalks are no good for eating once they have begun to flower. They are no longer tender and flavorful. This is a mostly green variety.

You can see how the stalks are no good for eating once they have begun to flower. They are no longer tender and flavorful. This is a mostly green variety.

A few of these stalks are still tender and good. I made some quick sauce with an armful. They cooked into a tasty but less than beautiful brown mush. I've decided to stick with my domestic red plants.

A few of these stalks are still tender and good. I made some quick sauce with an armful. They cooked into a tasty but less than beautiful brown mush. I've decided to stick with my domestic red plants.

Domestic Rhubarb Flowers, Red Stalks

These are domestic stalks which seldom flower. A particularly lush year may cause plants to behave oddly.

These are domestic stalks which seldom flower. A particularly lush year may cause plants to behave oddly.

They are lovely, and still provided enough edible stalks that I don't mind the flowers.

They are lovely, and still provided enough edible stalks that I don't mind the flowers.

How Should You Harvest Rhubarb?

Rhubarb is simple to harvest. It is most available in the spring and early summer, when the weather is cool and a bit damp. After the weather heats up, rhubarb loses its savor, and often becomes a bit unpleasant and lifeless. Also, certain parts of the plant are somewhat toxic, and this toxicity increases during the later, warmer weather, circulating more freely throughout the plant.

Select stalks at least a 1/2" across, and grasping them near the soil, tug and twist them out of the root base. They should come out all in one piece. Very crisp stalks may break off. In this case, try to finish removing the broken root end, as it is likely to rot, potentially bringing harm to the plant.

Because the leaves are so bulky, you may wish to snap or cut them off before taking your stalks into the house to wash them. Discard the leaves where they will not be eaten by animals or children, as they contain large amounts of oxalic acid, which is mildly toxic and can cause gout.

The Author's Rhubarb Patch

To harvest for general use, grasp the plumpest, crispest stalks near their bases and pull them out. This was my rhubarb in 2013, the same year in which the wild rhubarb was growing so abundantly.

To harvest for general use, grasp the plumpest, crispest stalks near their bases and pull them out. This was my rhubarb in 2013, the same year in which the wild rhubarb was growing so abundantly.

The patch is abundantly thick and shelters itself, so the harvest may be prolonged. This is an old variety, and may be Victoria itself.

The patch is abundantly thick and shelters itself, so the harvest may be prolonged. This is an old variety, and may be Victoria itself.

How Much?

It can be tricky to judge exactly how much rhubarb you need for a recipe. The stalk diameter, length, and quality can vary considerably. On average, though, 1 pound of rhubarb stalks will yield 3 cups of chopped rhubarb.

Step 1--Wash the Rhubarb Stalks, Snap Off the Ends

Place stalks in a sink and rinse each carefully. The root ends may feel slick. Snap off the root ends, and the leaves if you have not done so already. Discard or compost leaves.

Place stalks in a sink and rinse each carefully. The root ends may feel slick. Snap off the root ends, and the leaves if you have not done so already. Discard or compost leaves.

Step 2--Chop the Stalks

Rhubarb is largely water and may usually be chopped coursely, as it cooks down a lot. 1/2" pieces are good for pies, 1/4" for cakes or breads. Split thick stalks lengthwise, then lay 3 or 4 together, and chop. Peel only as necessary.

Rhubarb is largely water and may usually be chopped coursely, as it cooks down a lot. 1/2" pieces are good for pies, 1/4" for cakes or breads. Split thick stalks lengthwise, then lay 3 or 4 together, and chop. Peel only as necessary.

Step 3--Package the Chopped Rhubarb

This looks like a lot of rhubarb, but it won't quite fill these two 1-gallon sacks. Estimate the best you can, and pre-label, so condensation won't affect the ink.

This looks like a lot of rhubarb, but it won't quite fill these two 1-gallon sacks. Estimate the best you can, and pre-label, so condensation won't affect the ink.

There. You can always add fresh rhubarb to a partially filled, frozen sack. Enjoy your mid-winter pies!

There. You can always add fresh rhubarb to a partially filled, frozen sack. Enjoy your mid-winter pies!

Preservation Methods Other Than Freezing

If you wish to freeze your chopped rhubarb, all you need to do is fill sacks, pre-labeling them due to condensation once they are filled, and find freezer room for them. Label all bags with full name of the produce, and legible date.

However, there are other options; for example, you may waterbath or steam can rhubarb, or dry it. I'll show you how to preserve rhubarb in these ways in other articles.

Rhubarb Benefits

Did you know that rhubarb is better than simply tasty? It has several important health benefits, especially for your gut health and regular function. Bone strength, brain health, and a tonic action are also included.

Did you know that rhubarb is better than simply tasty? It has several important health benefits, especially for your gut health and regular function. Bone strength, brain health, and a tonic action are also included.

Homemade Rhubarb Wine, With a Twist

Questions & Answers

Question: is it ok to eat the stalks of rhubarb that are only partly red with green on the upper half?

Answer: That may depend partly on the variety of rhubarb, but I have never seen any problems doing this. The oxalic acid (troublemaker) is mostly in the roots and leaves, but doesn't present many problems for most people as long as the weather remains somewhat cool. I only know one person who is bothered by it, and he has a liver condition.

Question: Can you use frozen rhubarb when baking, or should it be thawed first?

Answer: It's best to thaw it first, as freezing breaks down the cell walls and releases juice. You may want to drain this off before adding the rhubarb to batters etc.

The juice is good added to lemonade or made into ice cubes for punch, etc.

Question: Have the tougher pieces of rhubarb from thicker, more mature stalks reached a level of maturing where the flavor has dissipated? If so, then I would assume that the thinner, more tender stalks are the best for making rhubarb sauces.

Answer: Usually the earlier, thinner stalks are more flavorful and tender. But some varieties of rhubarb, and different growing conditions, produce thicker stalks which are still wonderful. Heat has more to do with the flavor dissipating than any other factor I know. Oftentimes, rhubarb will remain flavorful up through June, or whenever your very hot weather sets in. During high summer, the plants have more oxalic acid in the stalks, and should not be eaten, anyway.

© 2010 Joilene Rasmussen

Comments

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on August 02, 2020:

You can obtain rhubarb crowns or seeds from several garden supply sites and seed companies, including Gurney's and Urban Farmer. Try a Google search containing the words "warm weather rhubarb varieties". I found this info on growing rhubarb in warmer climates:

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables...

It doesn't list suggested varieties, but does tell you how to beat the heat and root rot.

Dee Johnson on July 30, 2020:

Where can I get rhubarb to plant in Florida, zone 8B?

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on June 22, 2018:

Mary, you are so welcome!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 17, 2018:

i have rhubabrb and this year we're in the cottage early so I will be able to harvest some. Thank you for these instructions on how to freeze them.

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on June 04, 2017:

Your split rhubarb should be fine. It simply took on more water than normal, which caused it to expand. It may cook up extra juicy, but if you plan on adding a few minutes' cooking time to your normal recipe, it ought to work fine. I hope your rhubarb dish turns out great!

Abbemac9 on June 04, 2017:

I cut my rhubarb and made the mistake of putting it in water overnight. It all split at both ends and curled up all over the place! Can I still cook with it?

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on November 14, 2013:

Teewee, your rhubarb should be perfectly safe to eat at any time. Must have really nice weather, yes? The reason people usually don't eat the summer (and maybe fall) rhubarb is because weather conditions make it taste dull, or insipid. But if it tastes good, feel free to use it. Only the leaves and, I believe, the roots, are toxic. The stalks should be fine.

Teewee on November 07, 2013:

My rhubarb plant just yieled new stalks, just like in the spring ??? Is it safe to eat them since this is late Oct. They are the same nice quality as in the spring?

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on June 07, 2012:

Some varieties of rhubarn are entirely green rather than red, and some varieties tend to show both colors. (What I have often does.) There is no known toxicity in the stalks.

As for fermenting rhubarb, yes, it is possible. And, though I have never yet done it, you can make a wine from rhubarb. I hear it is quite good. I've never heard of a rhubarb beer, but I don't see why this would be impossible.

Dr. Min on May 15, 2012:

I just harvested a batch of rhubarb (mid-May) and only a small portion of the stalks were red -- most were green. But I cooked them anyway. Are green rhubarb stalks toxic? I'll sample a few spoonsful anyway and see what happens. I noticed that thinning the rhubarb helps promote thicker stalks. Is there a rhubarb beer or wine? Is it possible to ferment rhubarb?

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from Ovid on March 10, 2010:

Jayjay,

What a bummer that you can't grow rhubarb! Can you get it somewhere else? Many people who can grow it have extra from year to year.

Thank you for your compliments.

jayjay40 from Bristol England on March 09, 2010:

I love rhubarb but can't grow it. A lot of brilliant ideas about freezing it. A good hub well written, well done