Now is the perfect time to take advantage of fresh rhubarb and make a nice simple rhubarb jam. Homemade jam is so satisfying to make. You’ll save a trip to the grocery or specialty food store, you’ll save money, and you’ll gain confidence in your resourcefulness and creativity.
As you may know, rhubarb is treated like a fruit, even though botanically it is a vegetable. A simple rhubarb jam, like so many jams, has so many uses other than straight up on toast — you can add a spoonful to vinaigrettes to liven up salads, add to meat dishes that traditionally call for fruit such as tagines, or spread on the bottom of a fruit gallette or pie. You can make hand pies, pop tarts, and ice cream, and you can add simple rhubarb jam to your cocktails or mocktails.
A Little Rhubarb History
It may surprise you to know that rhubarb is a vegetable stalk related to the sorrel family, Rheum rhubarbarum, probably of Siberian origin. A United States Customs Court (in Buffalo, NY) named rhubarb a fruit in 1947, presumably because everyone was eating and preparing it in the ways a fruit is typically prepared.
Travel back in time a little further and into China, and you’ll learn that rhubarb was not treated as fruit or vegetable, but rather as medicine. Purgative medicine. The roots and stalks of rhubarb contain substances called anthraquinones which are cathartic and laxative when consumed in larger quantities. Rhubarb cleanse, anyone?
It’s believed that rhubarb came to North America (Philadelphia to be exact) in approximately 1730 and today is commonly used in combination with strawberry to make pie, as well as on its own to make jam and compote, and it can also be pickled, made into fruit wine, and even dehydrated then infused with fruit juice.
The first time I myself tried rhubarb was in Marblehead, Massachusetts when I was visiting a college friend while I was on summer break from graduate school a little further midwest in Pennsylvania. Food memories are so strong and vivid for me! I can remember, although it was nearly 25 years ago, that was also the first time I’d eaten a poached egg. When I returned home I politely demanded the recipe and made it a few times. Where does the time go?! As I write this, that trip somehow seems not distant in time at all. Ugh. Interestingly, a few years later when I was visiting that same friend who’d moved to Sweden, I noticed she’d give her young son raw rhubarb dipped in sugar. Apparently this is also a common snack in western Finland, Iceland and Norway.
By now you may be bored of rhubarb factoids, so let’s cut to it: the leaves of rhubarb are NOT to be eaten. They contain oxalic acid and other poisons that could kill you. Succinct.
Here in Washington and Oregon, rhubarb runs two seasons, one from April to May, and then another from June through July. This year I saw rhubarb in late March and last year I saw the last of it in August. Rhubarb is delicious when young and fresh, but it also freezes well when chopped and stored in airtight containers, for up to a couple of weeks. Of course you could freeze longer but if you’re freezing yourself, unless you have a vacuum sealer I’d only let keep in the freezer a shorter time.
Jam Class at Sqirl
I used to avoid making jam, until I realized it was one of the only fairly straightforward things I hadn’t learned how to make confidently and it was time to at least give it a try. In 2013 I took a jam class from the now very well known chef Jessica Koslow of LA’s famed Sqirl restaurant, which at that time was only a TINY breakfast/toast stall with no seats other than a few pull up ones sharing space with G & B Coffee. I also became a certified Foodcrafter at the Institute for Domestic Technology (that’s a whole future blog post . . . what a place . . . you can learn “Koji Crafting” there right now!) where I did a marmalade immersion as well as learn bread, cheese and mustard. But back to jam. Jessica first became known for her jams which she sold at farmers markets and to chefs. I kept seeing and eating them at breakfast around town, and was a big fan. Jessica’s jams were known immediately to be of superior quality and taste, and I’d kept an eye on her radar when I heard she was hoping to open a cafe. I think we went there the first day it opened and I watched her make my “flaky-ass biscuit” with her own hands and stick it in the oven. I’ve kept the photos from that class in my old blog’s archives and if you really want a laugh you can go sleuthing through the yellow photographs there.
More importantly, though, the class was easy, enjoyable, and we left with 4 jars of homemade jam to enjoy with family and friends. A few James Beard nominations, brick and mortar cafes and a cookbook later, Jessica is still refreshingly humble, down to earth and funny. I learned from her that jam is really simple to make but the ratios and instructions are really important and it’s best not to “wing” the recipe. Also, I learned what a huge difference it makes to use the best seasonal, locally grown farmer’s market fruit . . . it will cost you an arm and a leg but there is just no comparison to jam made with out-of-season supermarket, mass produced fruit.
One thing in particular that shocked me was the amount of sugar called for, and although over the years I’ve tried variations of jam recipes that utilized honey or chia seeds, I’ve found that using the classic fruit to sugar ratio produces an exceptional jam both from the taste and texture standpoint. And you don’t need pectin. Just a boatload of sugar. I personally just don’t have a problem with that. I use good sugar, and I don’t eat jam every day and when I do eat jam, I eat just a nice small portion. I can’t really go cold turkey on food things, it doesn’t work for my personality. Comes back to get me in sideways ways.
My simple rhubarb jam recipe is built upon the peach jam recipe we made in class at Sqirl. I added a few rose geranium flowers for fragrance because they were growing in my front yard. It calls for simple rhubarb jam calls for a fruit to sugar ratio of 1:1.4.
The sugar causes the fruit to release its juices and soften a bit. Rhubarb has a naturally tart flavor that can be too pronounced in a jam if the fruit is not properly tamed. It will still be pleasantly tart when you macerate the fruit, but it won’t overwhelm the fruit’s flavor with a horrible biting tang. If you have older fruit, you should macerate overnight rather than just one hour.
The rhubarb is brought to boil over medium heat, stirred briefly only once to make sure there are no fruit pieces stuck to the bottom of the pan, and then boiled at high heat for 7 – 9 minutes with only very occasional stirring. I’ve found that with rhubarb jam it is nice to retain some of the fruit’s integrity and not let it completely disintegrate into . . . well . . . jam. It’s nice to have some chunks in there.
Once the boiling period is complete, the jam goes off heat and simply cools.
I hope you’ll give this jam a try. It’s so good and so easy. Happy eating everyone!Print
An easy, two ingredient recipe for rhubarb jam, no pectin.
2 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb stalk, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
3 1/2 cups sugar
Toss sugar over rhubarb and mix with hands in a large, shallow bowl. Let sit for at least one hour and if the fruit is older, up to 24 hours.
Place rhubarb and sugar mixture (including juices thrown off from macerating) into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir once just to make sure no fruit is sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Once the mixture is at boiling, turn heat up to high and boil for 7 – 9 minutes. Stir only very occasionally. Rhubarb breaks down naturally, and you want to maintain some chunky texture in the jam.
Off heat, let rhubarb cool to room temperature and pour into clean glass jar. If you wish, you can proceed with canning, otherwise, use jam within two weeks. Just keep an eye on it to make sure there is no mold or foul smell. My (un”canned”) jam usually keeps for up to three weeks. Keep refrigerated and enjoy!