Spring is here, signaling a time for new beginnings as the colder temperatures of winter melt away, ushering in longer days, warmth, and a time of growth. With so many delicious springtime vegetables, it’s hard to know which one I should encourage you to try. However, in northwest Illinois, one of our local favorites is rhubarb.
Rhubarb can be found in backyards, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores, during the spring and early summer, depending on your area’s growing conditions. And if you are lucky, you may be fortunate to find it in late July and August, depending on the variety being sold.
Although rhubarb is technically a vegetable, it is classified by the USDA as a fruit. It has long stalks with very large, broad leaves. The color of the stalk will vary, depending on the variety of rhubarb, ranging from deep red to soft green. This tart fruit is high in fiber, rich in antioxidants, and a good source of vitamin K.
Because of its tart, sour taste, it is typically prepared with a sweetener, such as sugar. You can find rhubarb in beverages and desserts such as crips, crumbles, muffins, pies, quick-breads, sauces, tarts, or preserves.
Selecting Fresh Rhubarb
If you have rhubarb plants, check out these harvesting tips. However, if you are purchasing your rhubarb at a market, follow these helpful tips.
Select stalks that are firm, tender, thin, and free of any blemishes. Choose those with a diameter of fewer than two inches, as larger stalks may be tough and stringy and not as tender as the smaller to medium-sized stalks. Most markets will have already removed the leaves of the rhubarb. However, if they are intact, remove and discard them. Rhubarb leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid, which are toxic and can cause kidney damage.
It’s important to note that color isn’t an indicator of ripeness or sweetness. There are many varieties of rhubarb, and the color will depend on the variety. Therefore, when determining the type of rhubarb to use, consider how it will be used and what characteristics are important to your recipe.
If the color of your final product is of great importance, and you desire a vibrant red color, you will want to select a rhubarb with a deep red color. However, if the color doesn’t matter because other ingredients will complement or detract from it, selecting green or speckled-pink rhubarb will work wonderfully.
Using Rhubarb after a Spring Frost
One common question asked over the years, especially if we have had a late springtime frost, is, “Is it okay to use rhubarb after a spring frost?”
The answer to this question lies in whether the rhubarb has been damaged by freezing temperatures. If the rhubarb plant shows signs of damage, such as black, shriveled leaves, and soft limp stalks, those stalks should be discarded. Always err on the side of caution and wait two to three days after the frost to thoroughly inspect the plant before harvesting its stalks.
Storing Fresh Rhubarb
Rhubarb, if stored properly, can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. To ensure the best quality, store stalks of rhubarb unwashed and loosely wrapped in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Storing rhubarb unprotected in the refrigerator will allow it to dry out and the stalks will become limp due to moisture loss.
Although rhubarb produces low levels of ethylene gas during ripening, it is ethylene sensitive. Therefore, it should be stored away from ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables, such as apples, avocados, peaches, and pears, to prevent deterioration and hasten spoilage.
When freezing rhubarb, or any fruit for that matter, ask yourself what you will use it for. Knowing the answer to this will guide you in knowing the best method to use when freezing.
There are two primary methods used for freezing rhubarb. Each will have its unique benefits, so again, you should know how you intend to use it. Regardless of the method, all rhubarb should be washed, trimmed, inspected for damage, and cut into pieces before freezing.
Dry Pack Method
If you plan on using rhubarb for bars, cakes, muffins, pies, or quick-breads, you will want to use the dry pack method to prevent adding excess moisture to your baked goods.
The dry pack method is a multi-step process where the rhubarb is blanched to inactivate enzymes, which would impact its color, flavor, nutrients, and texture.
Before freezing, blanch rhubarb by placing pieces into a large pot of boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, begin timing for one minute. Once the time has elapsed, remove the rhubarb immediately, and place it in an ice water mixture to stop the cooking process for one minute. Then drain, pat dry, and place on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper in a single layer. Place in the freezer for two hours or until frozen. Once frozen, remove the rhubarb from the freezer and quickly package it in a freezer-safe container. Remove any additional air from packaging, label, date, and use within twelve months for best quality.
Syrup Pack Method
The second method used in freezing rhubarb is a syrup pack. For this process, you will not need to blanch the rhubarb. Instead, simply wash, trim, cut, and inspect the rhubarb. Then place cut rhubarb into freezer-safe packaging and cover pieces with a 40 percent syrup pack, and use within twelve months for best quality.
My hope for you is that this spring, you will venture out and try some new springtime produce or return to some of your old favorites. Remember, as we journey together on the path to wellness, including fruits and vegetables is critical to reaching our wellness goals. So, set a goal, even if it’s small, to add one extra serving of fruits or vegetables to your daily routine. And then, see how that one small step can propel you towards new and exciting places in your journey.
SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties.
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Rhubarb: Harvesting Rhubarb. University of Illinois Extension
Recipes: Rhubarb pie. University of Illinois Extension
Add rhubarb to your meals for a splash of color: Crisp. University of Illinois Extension
Freezing: Blanching. Freezing Fruit Guide. University of Illinois Extension
Freezing: Fruit. Syrup pack. University of Illinois Extension