Why Rhubarb Is Almost Always Used In Sweet Recipes

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first people to eat rhubarb didn't fare so well. In the 17th century, the English made the unpleasant mistake of harvesting and eating the large leaves of the rhubarb plant, which looked a lot like chard, but due to high levels of oxalic acid, said leaves caused nausea, cramps, and even death. Not surprisingly, interest in the plant waned for a couple hundred years until Europeans discovered that rhubarb stalks are delicious when prepared properly.

The USDA indicates that rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family, and it's biologically a vegetable. Because it's nearly always cooked with sugar, though, it's categorized as a fruit. Most of the rhubarb in the U.S. is grown in northern states from coast to coast, with Washington, Michigan, and Oregon being the states that produce the most.

Rhubarb generally appears in dessert recipes like strawberry rhubarb crisp or rhubarb pound cake, even though the toxic leaves look like chard and the stalks might remind you of celery. So, why is rhubarb featured in sweet recipes?

Pucker up

Rhubarb is tart! How tart is it? Rhubarb juice (which you wouldn't want to drink), contains only 12 grams of sugar per liter. Apple juice, by comparison, contains 100-120 grams of sugar per liter. Orange juice comes in with around 130 grams per liter and grape juice has about 187 grams of sugar per liter. When you compare rhubarb to other fruits, what's missing is the sugar. That's why it's sweetened up in recipes.

And when you pair rhubarb with sweeter fruits, like strawberries (around 57 grams of sugar per liter), you end up with a delightful sweet-tart melange that's beautifully balanced. Best harvested in late spring or early summer, rhubarb can either provide a tangy note to other fruit-based dishes, or it can shine on its own in a jam or jelly, where it's sweetened to perfection. Because rhubarb needs so much sugar to taste good, it's also a wonderful component in recipes high in acid. Try adding some rhubarb and strawberries to a shrub for a delightfully bright, vinegary syrup that goes into creative cocktails and house-made sodas.