How to Harvest & Prepare Rhubarb for Cooking, Baking, & Freezing
The Rhubarb Plant and Root, Early Spring
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
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.
Stalks Only Please
Only the stalks of rhubarb plants should be used. All leaves should be discarded. They contain large amounts of oxalic acid, which is mildly toxic and can cause gout.
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
Domestic Rhubarb Flowers, Red Stalks
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
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
Step 2--Chop the Stalks
Step 3--Package the Chopped Rhubarb
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 future articles.
Hot, dry days bring on more oxalic acid, so please don't harvest rhubarb which has been left in these conditions. Spring rhubarb has the best flavor, and is the best for you. Late rhubarb is likely to go dull, and the texture may toughen and grow stringy.
Homemade Rhubarb Wine, With a Twist
Questions & Answers
is it ok to eat the stalks of rhubarb that are only partly red with green on the upper half?
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.Helpful 14
Can you use frozen rhubarb when baking, or should it be thawed first?
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.Helpful 6
© 2010 Joilene Rasmussen