Instantly recognisable thanks to its vivid red colouring and sweet-tart flavour, rhubarb is a popular addition to pies, crumbles and all manner of other desserts. In fact, it was even nicknamed ‘the pie plant’ by 19th century cookbook writers. It is often paired with other, sweeter fruits, particularly strawberry, or with creamy custards.
The edible part of the rhubarb is its fleshy red leaf stalk, known as a ‘petiole’. This means that rhubarb is technically a vegetable rather than a fruit, but it is legally classed as a fruit in the USA. It grows well in cold climates, and is in season between April and June, although ‘hothouse’ rhubarb is available all year round.
Rhubarb is similar in appearance to celery, although the two plants are not related. The main difference is the red colouring of the edible leaf stalks, and, of course, their flavour. Rhubarb has an overwhelmingly sour taste if eaten raw, and is almost always stewed with sugar to make it more palatable. Once cooked, it takes on the tangy, sweet-tart flavour we all know and love.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that rhubarb wasn’t really considered as a foodstuff until the 18th and 19th centuries, when sugar became more widely available. It was, however, still highly sought after for the supposed medicinal qualities of its roots, with ancestors of the modern, culinary rhubarb used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
During the Islamic Golden Age, rhubarb was traded along the Silk Road, and was able to command prices far in excess of other valuable items such as cinnamon, opium, and saffron. It was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, where it was known as ‘Turkish rhubarb.’ Eventually, Europeans began growing their own rhubarb to save money, and it is thought that the edible rhubarb is a European hybrid of two medicinal varieties.
Nutritional values and health benefits
As well as making a particularly fine pie filling, rhubarb is thought to have some pretty impressive health benefits, although it is not quite the miracle cure that people thought in the Middle Ages.
Promotes healthy digestion
Rhubarb has long been used in folk medicine to treat a range of digestive disorders. There is no scientific evidence to support the use of rhubarb as a cure, but it is a good source of fibre, which can help to maintain a healthy gut, reducing the risk of digestive problems occurring in the first place.
May help lower cholesterol
The high fibre content of rhubarb may even be useful for lowering high cholesterol. One study has shown that eating a daily dose of rhubarb fibre may help people with high cholesterol to lower both overall and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.
High in antioxidants
Rhubarb is also a great source of antioxidants, beneficial plant compounds that fight cell damage caused by substances called oxidants, which can cause premature ageing and chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Rhubarb contains several of these cell-protecting compounds, including anthocyanins, which give it its signature red colour, and a particularly high concentration of polyphenols.
Despite these benefits, there are also certain side effects associated with rhubarb. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are toxic, and should never be eaten. This is due to a particularly high concentration of a harmful substance called calcium oxalate, which can cause a build-up of crystals in various organs, preventing them from functioning properly.
Calcium oxalate is also present in rhubarb stalks, but in much lower concentrations. This does not generally cause problems, but eating too much rhubarb may, in some cases, lead to kidney stones, and even kidney failure. It is thought that some people are more susceptible to these problems than others, and issues are very rare, but it is still thought best to enjoy rhubarb as an occasional treat only.
If you’re craving a sweet treat with a tangy bite, rhubarb could be the fruit for you. Indulge your sweet-ish tooth with one of these sweet-tart treats.
Rhubarb lemonade: the slight sourness of rhubarb makes it the perfect partner for zesty lemon juice in this fruity vintage-look pink lemonade. Perfect for drinking in the garden on a hot summer’s day.
Gooseberry and rhubarb crumble: this unusual twist on a classic crumble has a pastry base and a sweet, buttery crumble topping. The filling is made with the ultimate sweet-tart combination of rhubarb and gooseberry, tamed with a liberal dusting of sugar and cinnamon.
Rhubarb spice cake: great as a dessert or with coffee, this tasty spice cake contrasts the rich warmth of nutmeg, ginger and cloves with a fruity rhubarb compote topping.
Rhubarb and vanilla pie: this tasty fruit tart uses the classic flavour combination of rhubarb and rich, creamy custard for a truly delicious dessert.
Vegan rhubarb crumble: a classic rhubarb crumble, minus the dairy, this vegan-friendly dessert is the perfect end to that special family meal.
Rhubarb and strawberry pie: a good, honest home-baked pie, made with sweet strawberries, and sweet-tart rhubarb. Sometimes the classics are the best.
Gluten-free rhubarb pudding: another old-time favourite, this golden sponge pudding is stuffed with sweet, tangy rhubarb, and tastes great served with custard. Even better, it’s completely gluten free.
Rhubarb is usually associated with comforting, home style desserts, but in recent years it has also become a favourite ingredient of Michelin-starred chefs. If you want to try some rhubarb recipes with a little more fine dining appeal, take a look at our collection of rhubarb recipes by Michelin-starred chefs.
Because of its strong taste, rhubarb is the perfect foil for other ingredients with bold flavour profiles. It is most often used in desserts, where its tartness can be used to balance very sweet flavours like strawberries, or to cut through rich, creamy flavours like custard.
It is also possible to use rhubarb in savoury dishes, however. It can be used as a sauce for roasted or grilled meats in much the same way as cranberry, with its sweet-tart flavour perfect for cutting through the rich flavour of game meats and turkey.