A spring favourite
Rhubarb is one of those foods that you either love or hate, a bit like spinach. Many people find that the consistency and tart, fruity taste take a bit of getting used to. Children don’t tend to be keen on it, but your taste changes as you get older, and lots of adults look forward to rhubarb in spring. And although rhubarb can taste sweet and fruity, it’s actually a vegetable, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find it in the fresh fruit section on a wander through the supermarket. Simply scan the rows of vegetables, and you may well find it hiding there. ;-)
Why does rhubarb taste the way it does? Where does it actually come from? What can I make with rhubarb? We’ve put together everything you need to know. :-)
Season and origins
The rhubarb harvest lasts from April to June. Irrespective of the variety, rhubarb should ideally be harvested when its stalks are about 25 cm long and already a green and red colour; if the stalks are completely green, they’re best avoided. Rhubarb shouldn’t be harvested any later than 24th June, which is traditionally also the last day for picking asparagus, as after that wild-grown rhubarb will be too sour, and its oxalic acid content too high.
People often assume that rhubarb is a European plant, but that’s a myth. This plant originates in the Himalaya, so it comes from Asia. It was initially used as a medicinal plant there; it wasn’t cooked in dishes. Rhubarb arrived in Europe via England in the 18th century. Germany and the Netherlands are now the biggest rhubarb producers in Europe.
What gives rhubarb its taste? And which parts of the plant are edible?
Only the stalks are actually edible, not the leaves. The stalks are very flavoursome and taste both sweet and tart due to the fruit acids that they contain, including citric, malic and oxalic acid. The taste depends on the variety of rhubarb and the point at which it is harvested.
As a rule of thumb, the earlier you harvest it, the milder the rhubarb will taste.
Red stalks are generally sweeter than green ones.
How about the leaves? Why are these not stripped and eaten? Like beetroot and some other vegetables, rhubarb contains oxalic acid. This is particularly concentrated in the leaves. As such, the rumour that rhubarb is poisonous isn’t entirely unfounded. Excessive amounts of oxalic acid can trigger symptoms of poisoning in the human body and lead to gastrointestinal disorders. In conjunction with calcium, oxalic acid also eliminates important minerals in the body and can attack tooth enamel. People suffering from kidney disease or gout should therefore avoid foods containing oxalic acid. However, a healthy person would have to eat a lot of rhubarb stalks and leaves to experience severe symptoms of poisoning. If properly cooked, rhubarb is completely safe to eat for healthy people and shouldn't be missed from April to June. Don’t eat it uncooked, though. Baked, preserved and juiced, it is not only digestible, but incredibly healthy, too. This invigorating spring favourite is packed with good stuff.
- is very low in calories, at 13 kcal per 100 g
- aids digestion and helps relieve constipation
- strengthens the nervous system and has a mood-boosting effect
- protects hair and can ward off premature greying
What varieties are there, and how do they differ?
Rhubarb varieties can be roughly divided into sour, mild and sweet. Sour varieties of rhubarb are green on the inside and outside. They grow most plentifully and are also the variety thought to contain the greatest amount of oxalic acid. The most popular varieties of green rhubarb are Goliath, Rosara and Sutton. The types with green fruit and red skin have a milder taste, but they are less abundant that the purely green varieties.
Most popular of all, however, are Frambozen Rood, Red Valentine and Holsteiner Blut. The names give the game away: these are the red rhubarb varieties, with both the flesh and the skin coloured red, and they usually taste sweet.
What should you be mindful of when buying rhubarb? How long does it keep?
If you don’t have a rhubarb patch in your garden, you’ll have to get it from a farmer's market or supermarket. Essentially, your own taste should dictate which type you buy. If you prefer tart rhubarb, go for the ones with green stalks. If something milder and sweeter is more your thing, opt for red rhubarb. Like asparagus, the stalks should be firm and the cut surface at the end of each stalk should be fresh and not yet dried out. If it passes those tests, go ahead and buy it, even if you're only planning to cook it a few days later. Rhubarb is a hardy vegetable and doesn’t need to be prepared immediately after it has been purchased or harvested. Simply wrap the stalks in a damp cloth and put them in the refrigerator, where they’ll keep for another couple of days.
Rhubarb also makes a good food to have in reserve, as it’s easy to freeze. To do this, just wash the stalks, cut them into chunks and pack them in freezer bags. When you need the rhubarb, simply thaw it and prepare it in the normal way.
What to make with rhubarb:
Have you ever eaten a savoury rhubarb dish? Probably not, right? Rhubarb is one of those vegetables that’s only ever eaten as a sweet ingredient. You might be familiar with rhubarb compote from childhood, but it also works beautifully in tarts, jams and even juice.
Rhubarb cakes, pies and tray bakes are wonderful with coffee. Rhubarb stalks don’t need to be parboiled before baking – just wash and cut them, remove any stringy bits of skin, and you're done. They will soften up and become digestible when baked in the oven.
It goes without saying that we have a clutch of great rhubarb recipes for your Monsieur Cuisine. Have fun cooking this sweet vegetable; you’re bound to love the results.