The Tell-Tale Of Spring: What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?
Rhubarb is weird. Unlike other strange foods such as tofu or cottage cheese, everyone kind of knows what it is, yet it still remains a mystery to most of us. Like, perhaps you have tasted a slice of rhubarb cake or a piece of rhubarb pie before, but can you remember the last time you purchased it from the grocery store? Can you even answer the question, ‘What does rhubarb taste like?’
My introduction to rhubarb came in the form of a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie with a flake crust and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. I was in my teens and, from the first bite, I was in love. I still recall how the ping pong of sweet and tart flavors mesmerized me.
Until now, there are only a few things that bring me as much pleasure as this veggie. Although it might seem like a novelty purchase, if you are going to find rhubarb at the market, it has to be now, when we are smack dab in the midst of spring. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of this plant, shall we?
Rhubarb 101: What Is It Exactly?
First thing first, this is rhubarb:
What a nice color, right? The word rhubarb comes from the Latin word “rhababarum” which stands for “root of the barbarians.” The Romans labeled anyone who ate rhubarb “barbarians.” I guess that makes me a barbarian!
Despite the origin of its name, the plant was first grown in China as a medical plant. Rhubarb has been cultivated there for more than 2,000 years until it was exported to Europe by way of the Silk Road trade route, eventually making its way to North America. Until the 18th century, it was strictly regarded as a medicinal plant, but by the 19th century, the medicinal use of rhubarb had largely been abandoned in Europe and North America. Nowadays, the plant is being grown for its delicious stalks alone.
When you see rhubarb in the local markets, it’s a tell-tale sign that spring has arrived. Yes, it is a spring vegetable, one of the few that is still truly seasonal. The plant grows best in cool weather below 75°F, which is why it’s only available from late March to the beginning of June.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Wait, what? Did you just say ‘vegetable’?”. From a botanical perspective, fruit is the seed-bearing product that grows from the ovary of a flowering plant. Meanwhile, vegetables are all the edible parts of the plant, including leaves, roots, flowers, and stalks. Rhubarb is the fleshy, edible stalks (petioles) of species and hybrids (culinary rhubarb) of Rheum in the family Polygonaceae, so scientifically saying, it is a vegetable.
Rhubarb: Fruit Or Vegetable?
We have a good reason to think rhubarb is fruit, though: In culinary, “vegetables” are frequently seen in savory dishes. “Fruit”, on the other hand, has a soft texture and can be eaten raw or in desserts. Since rhubarb is often associated with sweet treats and bread recipes, it functions like fruit in our belief.
Ironically, in 1974, the USDA classified it as a fruit because the tariffs on fruits were lower than vegetables. So, you can call it whatever way you want, and both of them make sense, just like pickle!
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like?
Despite being a veggie, why does rhubarb take on the culinary role of a fruit? Well, it all comes down to the taste. In case you wonder ‘What does rhubarb taste like?’, raw rhubarb is very sour, just as mouth-puckering as lemon. It’s completely safe to consume raw rhubarb so you can sample a small slice just to experience its purest flavor, but I doubt you will find it tasty.
That’s why the spring-darling plant is often cooked with sugar to make it palatable. That way, rhubarb will have a lovely tartness, akin to a green apple, with a very slight vegetal celery flavor. As a result, it becomes a perfect addition to sweet treats, such as pies. Many people associate the flavor of rhubarb with strawberries – another spring darling. The two make a perfect pair, as strawberries’ sweetness balances out the sourness of rhubarbs.
Rhubarb also goes well with prunes. What do prunes taste like, you ask? They can be intensely sweet or mildly sweet, depending on which type you have. The intense sweetness from prunes can be compared to brown sugar or molasses, while the mildly sweet prunes have a taste that is similar to honey. Either way, they complement the tartness of rhubarb perfectly. Trust me when I say rhubarb-prunes tsimmes is the best Jewish treat!
However, rhubarb’s flavor might vary, depending on its variety. There is more than one type of rhubarb plant, some can have stronger, sweeter, and more robust taste than others. Understanding each of them will help you big time in choosing the right rhubarb for your dish!
It lives up to its name with the bright red stalks. It is also one of the sweetest and least sour varieties you can find out there.
Hence, if you are new to rhubarb and feel nervous about its infamous puckery nature, you know what to pick! And as a bonus, you can add less sugar to your desserts – perhaps.
Chipman’s Canada Red
Another choice for newbies is Chipman’s Canada Red. The stalks have tender flesh and skin, offering a wonderfully sweet flavor, so you don’t have to add much sugar when mixing it with cobblers, pies, desserts, and other recipes. Also, its red color doesn’t fade when cooked!
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – Crimson Red
“Crimson Red” is the reddest rhubarb variety, tending to be ruby red all the way through. It produces tall, plump, brightly-colored red stalks that offer the perfect balance between sweet and sour. Home cooks will find these flavorful stalks slightly more crisp and juicy than others, making them easier to handle in cooking and baking.
Just as its name indicates, the variety “German Wine” is ideal for making, well, wine! According to Amanda O’Brien – a Maine-based winemaker – its taste reminds her of exquisite rosé wine, so vinos take note!
Making rhubarb wine
Standing only 2 feet and spreading 2 to 3 feet wide, this variety is not impressive in size compared to other siblings. The uniquely green-pinky stalks can be found in your local grocery from late March to early June.
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – Glaskin’s Perpetual
Glaskin’s Perpetual is arguably the most popular variety out there. As thick and succulent stems that grow 30-35cm long and a pinky-green pigment with some red markings, it is easy for you to spot.
While other rhubarbs might turn bitter as summer arrives, you can still find Glaskin’s Perpetual in late fall. Due to a low concentration of oxalic acid, it never turns bitter, so you can still enjoy your favorite rhubarb pies, tarts, and jams well into the winter!
Thanks to the exceptional heat tolerance, you can find this variety in Southern and Northern America. The heirloom variety Hardy Tarty (also known as ‘Colorado Red’) offers reddish, thick, non-stringy stalks that are delightfully tart. This colorful addition will bring your pies and other dishes a luscious sourness, but if you can’t stand this puckery taste, be careful!
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – KangaRhu
Among the newest types of rhubarb, you’ll find the adorably-named KangaRhu variety as an interesting choice. Like most rhubarb varieties, it also has a stark red stem. This stalk is surprisingly bright and may hold a slight greenish tone in some cases. Stalks are as tart as they are red, so if you are all about mouth-puckering treats, KangaRhu is the one for you.
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – Riverside Giant
As the name implies, this one is a giant. The Riverside Giant can get to 4 feet in width and over 5 feet in height, making it far larger than the typical rhubarb.
The Riverside Giant also stands out for its color. In contrast with other varieties, this one never turns red or pink – it remains green all the way. Interestingly, it is still edible, though you can hardly detect any sweetness.
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – Sunrise
Perfect for those who love to store a large amount of rhubarb for later use, Sunrise can be kept in the freezer for a long time.
This is all thanks to its extra-tough, thick pink stems, which won’t turn mushy even after staying in the freezer for a long time. Ideal for anyone who craves a rhubarb pie in the middle of winter yet doesn’t have any fresh stalks on hand!
In February, you see rhubarb on the market, it must be Timperley Early. This variety is often the first to mature. The bright-pink, green-streaked stems have wonderful white flesh and are simply bursting with sweet, tangy, delicious flavor.
Did you know? There is a method of growing rhubarb known as “forcing” where the plant grows in complete darkness and is tended to in candlelight. While it sounds astonishing, Redditors from r/todayilearned report that during this process, rhubarb plants grow so quickly that you can even hear them grow. The best cultivar for this method is Timperley Early, and as some gardeners said, “they thrive on hatred and neglect”. Interesting, right?
How to force rhubarb?
What Does Rhubarb Taste Like – Victoria
Lastly, we have probably the most popular of all rhubarb varieties worldwide, the Victoria species. Nowadays, it is still the most widely available. Developed in 1837 at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, this variety pioneered the use of rhubarb in British and American cuisine. It is known as the first rhubarb ever been used in cooking.
With fat red-and-green stems and a sweet, lightly tart flavor, you can use Victoria in many desserts, savory dishes, sauces, jams, and even punch.
How To Choose Rhubarb?
If you have never seen or cooked with rhubarb before, choosing the right stalks might turn out to be a problem.
While you can sometimes see rhubarb at the local grocery stores with leaves, only the stalks are safe to consume. The large, triangular leaves contain a higher concentration of oxalic acid than foods like spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower (which have perfectly safe levels). You’d likely have to eat a large amount of the leaves for it to be lethal, but a small amount can cause nausea and vomiting.
To make sure, while choosing your rhubarb, look for stalks that are firm and upright, with leaves that seem fresh and haven’t wilted. Do not eat or serve the leaves and keep them out of reach of children and pets. Remember to remove the leaves first before cooking the rhubarb to your needs.
The Best Way To Store Rhubarb
As the previous part mentions, rhubarb is one of the few veggies that is still truly seasonal. But what if you crave a slice of rhubarb pie in the middle of autumn? Lucky you, there are several methods that can help you store rhubarb for a few weeks or even months!
The first one is by using a foil. Simply arrange the stalks on a large piece of foil. Instead of making it airtight, you can loosely wrap foil around your rhubarb and gently crimp the ends. Store it in the refrigerator until you plan to use it, and the stalks will last for at least a month or even longer.
In case you want to freeze rhubarb to use it months from now, the process is just as simple:
- Rinse rhubarb stalks with water and wipe dry.
- Cut washed rhubarb into 1-inch pieces and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet; freeze until solid, about 3–4 hours.
- Keep frozen rhubarb pieces in resealable plastic freezer bags and put them in the freezer for up to a year.
So, how to tell if rhubarb is bad? You can tell whether or not your rhubarb is spoiled just by looking at it. But if you are not quite sure, this list will come in handy:
- Texture: Fresh rhubarb has a crisp texture. Throw it out if it’s limp or floppy and doesn’t keep its shape when you pick one up.
- Color: Rhubarb is bright red or ruby-red, often with some green patches here and there. If the skin darkens and changes colors, it’s quite obvious that the stalk is done for.
- Mold: Small signs of mold might appear on the two ends of the stalks, especially when you leave them at room temperature for a long time. If they are small, you can cut them off and cook the rest. If the mold begins to spread, get rid of the rhubarb.
- Smell: I’ve never had a rhubarb that smelled bad, but if yours does, something’s not right. In this case, the only option is to discard it.
“There’s Always Room For Rhubarb Pie!”
That’s the answer for ‘What does rhubarb taste like?’. Does it encourage you to give these stalks a try? Well, you should! From rhubarb pie and rhubarb-strawberry tart to the buckwheat rhubarb bread, the spring darling will take you on a journey full of flavors and make you love this endearing season even more!
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