Rhubarb is my favorite vegetable. Maybe because it’s pink. Or maybe because it’s powerfully distinctive and adds the most wonderful flavor to both savory and sweet dishes. Or because I love to grow it — it’s ridiculously easy and bountiful!
And yes, rhubarb is technically a veggie — even though a New York customs court declared it a fruit in 1947, at the behest of an importer who would benefit, tariff-wise, if it were a fruit. The court similarly declared the tomato a vegetable rather than a fruit in 1893. Botany be damned!
Whatever you call it, and however you use it, spring’s the time to start enjoying rhubarb. Here’s how to shop for and store rhubarb — brought in from the garden or the market.
• Choose thin, firm stalks, when you can — about as big around as your index finger and a foot or so long is ideal. The bigger stalks taste perfectly fine, but they tend to be a little stringier.
• Don’t discriminate. The celery-like roots come in red, pink, and light green — and all variations of these colors. The color of the stalks doesn’t indicate ripeness, so don’t shy away from the greener stalks. (I admit to choosing pink and red stalks because they’re prettier in a dish, though.) Whatever the color, the stalk should appear bright.
• Look for stalks that are flat and crisp, not curled or limp.
• Choose stalks that haven’t dried out.
How to store rhubarb for the short term
Don’t wash the stalks. Cut off the leaves (which cause the stalks to dry out) and discard them. Then you have several options, all of which are based on maintaining moisture and cool temps:
• Cook’s Illustrated recommends wrapping rhubarb loosely in foil — snug enough to keep the ends from drying out, but loose enough to allow the ethylene gas produced by the rhubarb to escape. (Ethylene gas is what softens the stalks over days of storage.) Then place in the crisper of your refrigerator.
• Simply place the stalks in a perforated plastic bag (to allow some of the ethylene gas to escape) in the crisper of your refrigerator.
• Store like celery and asparagus: Cut the ends of the stalks and stand in a glass of water. Cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator.
• Wrap the stalks in a damp cloth and place them in the crisper of your refrigerator. To keep them moist, change the damp towel every couple of days, or whenever it dries out. This is the method I like to use, to avoid using plastic bags or aluminum foil.
Rhubarb stalks stored one of these ways should last in the refrigerator for at least a week, maybe twice that. If they get sorry looking, stand them in a glass of water to revitalize.
Important! It’s true that rhubarb leaves are toxic. They contain both anthraquinone glycosides and oxalic acid, which is poisonous in large quantities. (Another good reason to cut off and discard the leaves right away!)
How to store rhubarb for the long haul
If you’re growing your own rhubarb (it only takes one plant to keep our family rhubarb-full!), or if you’ve brought home a bounty of rhubarb from the market or a neighbor, you’ll want a good way to store it for the future.
Rhubarb is delicious canned — especially when made into jams, jellies, sauces or pickles! Don’t use any thickening before canning rhubarb, though, because the starch can prevent the heat from reaching the center of the jar when processing. You can always add a little cornstarch (mix into a paste with water, then add) to thicken just before serving.
Rhubarb is also very easy to freeze. There are several options for freezing:
Cut the rhubarb into pieces (an inch to two is fine). Then choose one of these options:
• Simply place in freezer containers or bags and pop in the freezer.
• Spread the pieces onto cookie sheets and flash freeze them for an hour or so in the freezer. Then put the rhubarb pieces in your freezer containers or bags. This prevents the rhubarb pieces from freezing together into a mass of rhubarb.
• Blanch the pieces before freezing, for maximum color and taste retention. To do this, plunge the rhubarb pieces into boiling water for one minute, drain, and then plunge them into ice water to instantly cool them off. Pat dry and place in freezer bags or containers.
• Sweeten before freezing. Combine rhubarb with sugar and let sit until the sugar is dissolved. Use about 1 part sugar to 4 parts rhubarb. Yes, that’s a lot of sugar. But rhubarb’s a lot of sour! Pack the rhubarb into freezer containers. Leave a little headspace to allow for expansion (about an inch for a wide-mouthed jar should do it).
• Make a rhubarb syrup to freeze by heating 1 cup of sugar in 2 cups of water until the sugar dissolves. Pour the sugar syrup over the rhubarb, then pack into containers. Again, leave headspace for expansion.
Don’t forget to label your freezer containers. Rhubarb will last about a year in the freezer — until next spring’s harvest, so you never have to do without!
How do you like rhubarb best? In a classic pie? (Rhubarb is also called “pie plant.) In a compote on top of yogurt or ice cream? Partnered with strawberries in cobblers or tarts? In beverages? (Rhubarb fizz cocktail anyone?) We’d love to share your favorite rhubarb recipe!