The Rundown on Rhubarb Health Benefits

Proper preparation turns this toxic plant into a healthy treat

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Cut Rhubarb. © 2015 David Marsden/Getty Images, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Rhubarb stalks resemble celery with a similar snap but a decidedly tart flavor. Temper the tang with sugar and this versatile vegetable is good for both sweet and savory dishes ranging from pies to chutneys to soup. The heart-shaped, wide-veined leaves contain oxalic acid, which can be toxic when consumed in large quantities, so discard them before you use or store the stalks.

Enjoy Rhubarb in Moderation

Rhubarb stalks range in color from pale green to a deep purplish red. An average serving of rhubarb, about 2/3 cup, contributes to healthy bowel movements due to its high fiber content, but it can also have a purgative or laxative effect in larger quantities. History records rhubarb among the medicines traded along the Silk Road.

Rhubarb contains more calcium than a comparable cup of milk, but in a form the body cannot easily absorb. The stalks do, however, provide healthy amounts of vitamins K and C, potassium and manganese, among other vitamins and minerals. Although naturally low in calories, with 20 calories per serving, rhubarb requires sweetening to become palatable for most people. Added sugar raises the calorie count significantly and negates some of the health benefits.

How to Cook With Rhubarb

Most recipes direct you to macerate, stew, roast or otherwise cook chopped rhubarb first, which allows you to sweeten the assertive stalks before introducing them into your dish. You can use sugar or an alternative sweetener. Pairing rhubarb with another naturally sweet fruit lets you cut down on the added sugar. A classic strawberry rhubarb pie makes a good introduction to this intriguing ingredient. It also shines in tarts, crisps, puddings, ice cream, smoothies, and jam.

If a sour bite appeals to you, try rhubarb pickles, rhubarb chutneys or even rhubarb cocktails. You can also use minced raw rhubarb as a crunchy garnish for soups, stews, tacos, and salads, or any place that diced raw radish might appear.

Grocery stores sell canned rhubarb all year long, but keep in mind that it already contains quite a bit of sugar. Buy it fresh at farmers markets from late spring to mid-summer or frozen at any time so you can control the amount of sweetener, which gives you greater flexibility with your recipes.

Rhubarb grows well in winter climates, either in the ground or in pots, so once you realize the appeal of this humble stalk, you might want to consider growing your own. Once established, it requires little maintenance and has the reputation of a prolific producer, so growing your own should give you plenty to use, freeze and share.

More About Rhubarb and Rhubarb Recipes

Can't get enough rhubarb? Check out these other rhubarb resources to learn more:

Rhubarb Cookbooks

Learn how to cook more than just pies with rhubarb these great rhubarb lover cookbooks:

The Joy of Rhubarb by Theresa Millang 

Rhubarb: More than Just Pies  by Sandi Vitt