Rhubarb is a surprisingly versatile vegetable that continuously surprises people. Unfortunately, it is also only available in spring, making it very hard to indulge in the recipes you come across.
Luckily today, we will discuss some of the best substitutes for rhubarb. And trust us, there are many. The difficult part is choosing which alternative will work best for your recipe!
So, what are the best substitutes for rhubarb? Strawberries prepared with lemon juice do the best job — this mix is versatile in how it can be used, and its sour-sweet flavor is easy to adjust. We also recommend using cranberries, sour cherries, tart apples, quinces, raspberries, and pomelo fruits.
Let’s look at the flavors, textures, and other benefits that these ingredients could offer in place of rhubarb. This way, you can make the best-informed decisions that won’t cost you an arm and a leg!
What Is Rhubarb?
Rhubarb is considered to be one of the last remaining spring vegetables. It is extremely hard to cultivate it outside of its season, making it extra special when that time of year comes around.
While initially rhubarb wasn’t all that well-known, it quickly shot to fame when people started realizing how incredibly delicious (not to mention versatile) this veggie is! But, what exactly is rhubarb?
Technically rhubarb is a vegetable, but many people confuse it with fruits because of its bright inviting color.
The edible part (which is referred to as rhubarb) is the stalk of the plant. The leaves are toxic — do not eat them.
The stalk is thick, relatively hard, but very juicy when cooked. It has a bright pink color, which is very misleading to the flavor you are about to bite into.
Rhubarb is shockingly sour! You may as well be biting directly into a lemon. Now, if you’re into that, great! But, not all people can handle this vegetable. So, rhubarb is most often used alongside a ton of sugar or sweetener.
Rhubarb is a versatile ingredient that can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.
It pairs incredibly well with a ton of common and unique flavors, making it very easy to use. So it comes to cooking with rhubarb, you also have an unlimited amount of options.
Personally, we think you can get the best textural and flavor results from rhubarb when the vegetable is roasted, boiled, or steamed. These methods help enhance the sweeter flavors, making rhubarb a little more palatable.
Characteristics Of Rhubarb
As you can see, rhubarb has quite a few defining characteristics. So, to choose the best substitute, you first need to know what exactly you are substituting!
First up, the texture. In its raw form, fresh rhubarb should have a very firm texture.
The stalks are quite rigid and won’t bend without cracking or snapping. The skin should always be completely blemish-free and smooth.
Then, rhubarb also has a natural pink and white skin color. The flesh inside is a kind of off-white. Sometimes, you will find some with a hue of red or purple. This color is strongly pigmented and will affect the color of your final product.
And finally, arguably the most important factor to consider, is the flavor of rhubarb. Ultimately, the answer to “what does rhubarb taste like?” will depend on how it has been cooked and with which other ingredients.
As we have mentioned, rhubarb has a pretty sour flavor. But, no one eats it raw — it has to be cooked! It does have noticeably citrus-like undertones and even fruity ones (like berries).
If you are making roasted mixed vegetables with rhubarb, naturally they will have a more savory salty (and maybe spiced) flavor profile. But, if you are making rhubarb jam, it will be extremely sweet and fruity.
Nutritional Composition Of Rhubarb
So, this section may not be for everyone, but it is still a strong reason people eat it. Rhubarb is very nutritious in some ways!
This vegetable is very low in calories, containing only 116 calories per 100 grams. This makes it a great addition to a calorie-counting diet.
It is virtually fat-free and contains low amounts of protein, but high amounts of carbs and fiber.
What is probably most impressive about rhubarb is its vitamin and mineral count for some nutrients. It is extremely high in vitamin K1 and calcium. Other note-worthy nutrients include vitamin C, potassium, and folate.
How To Choose The Best Substitute For Rhubarb
Now, as you may already realize, rhubarb has very unique characteristics that may not be as easy to substitute as some people make it out to be.
But, here’s the secret — you only have to choose the part that you are substituting. For example, if you only want to substitute the color, you can choose a pinkish-red alternative.
If you only want to substitute the flavor, then you will choose ingredients that are equally sour and fruity. And, if you want a firm crisp texture, you can use similar stalky vegetables.
See, when you think about it like that it becomes much easier to choose an alternative that works best for you.
So, let’s look at each in more depth!
This is probably the biggest reason people are looking for alternatives. Because the vegetable is so seasonal, you will likely find yourself in a situation where you need a swap because you cannot find rhubarb anywhere!
But, because of its unique fruit, citrus, and overwhelmingly sour flavor, you won’t be able to find an exact flavor match. The best you can do is choose ingredients that are similar in nature.
Take cranberries for example. They are sweet and berry-like to some extent. But, fresh cranberries also have sour flavors in them. So, while they will be much more fruity than rhubarb, they will still make a good substitute.
You also have the option to substitute rhubarb with multiple ingredients. The strawberry and lemon juice option worked best for us. By combining these two, you can manipulate the fruity and sour flavors to your liking.
Remember — you aren’t tied down to one particular flavor of a substitute. We’ll go into more detail below!
One option we won’t be covering in the list below is using flavored syrups or flavoring extracts. This option will work just fine, but naturally, it won’t give you the actual texture or nutrient profile of rhubarb.
But, if you are, for example, making a strawberry jam and want some quick and easy rhubarb flavors in it, then add an essence, extract, or syrup.
Because rhubarb has to be cooked, it is very easy to find a suitable alternative for its texture. If you are making a jam, any alternative will be able to work just fine.
But, if you are making roasted veggies, you probably still want an option that is a little bit crunchy when cooked. So, in that case, something like kale or chard will work best.
Yes, we know the flavor is completely different, but to some people that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, what works for you is what will be the best substitute!
We are by no means nutritionists. So for us to say this or that alternative is nutritionally the best match for rhubarb is almost impossible.
But, if you are very into health and counting nutrients, then obviously look for appropriate substitutes in that regard too.
Even if strawberries or cranberries are the best matches for flavor, they are incredibly high in sugar, which may not work for you.
Availability And Price
Okay, so you finally decided on an alternative, you go to the store, and see it will cost you three times the amount of actual rhubarb. Please people, don’t do it!
If there is a ridiculous price tag on fresh produce, it is either because it has been imported or because it isn’t in season. And neither of those industry practices should be supported!
Always choose an alternative that is in season and that fits your budget. You will be able to find a cheaper option.
The Best Substitutes for Rhubarb
So, without further ado, here are our top 7 recommendations for substituting rhubarb in various recipes. Remember to consider why you’re making your substitution, then go from there!
But again, we cannot emphasize enough that you should always choose an option that fits your budget, then your needs.
At first glance, strawberries may seem like the last substitute for rhubarb you can think of. But, it depends entirely on how you use them!
More often than not, rhubarb is made into a jam or soft-cooked dish.
If that is the case, you can use strawberries to substitute the fruity flavors and pair them with lemon juice. Freshly squeezed lemon juice will add an unbelievably delicate citrus-like flavor and, of course, the sour taste. You can even add some zest, too!
And, what we love most about this substitute is that it is easy to alter the exact amount of sweetness or sour flavor. Using strawberries is easy and you only have to remove the tops. Simply add more or less lemon juice to the recipe!
Both strawberries and lemon juice are relatively easy to find. The biggest problem is seasonality and locality (a.k.a. when and where).
For example, in Asia, strawberries are easy to find, but they aren’t as fresh as you would want them to be and they can be ridiculously expensive!
Fresh cranberries are our next go-to substitute. But, they are even harder to find than strawberries!
Sure, you can use dried cranberries, but they are more sweet than sour. So in our opinion, they don’t work as well.
But, if you can find fresh cranberries (even frozen cranberries), give them a try! They have a delicious fruity undertone with a strong tart flavor. Many people describe this tartness as that of lemons.
They are relatively low in sugar and much higher in acid. This makes them a great option for substituting for rhubarb. But, because they are small and relatively expensive, we won’t advise you to use them in all situations.
Only use fresh cranberries when you are making sauces or small batches of filling. For jams, you would need to spend a fortune on berries to get a decent amount.
3. Sour Cherries
Sour cherries are also called “tart cherries.” From the name, it is easy to guess why!
These cherries are unique to others because they are by no means sweet at all! Just like rhubarb, sour cherries are exclusively used for baking.
They are almost inedible raw due to their extremely sour taste. So, you should always pair them with lots of sweet ingredients to enhance their fruitiness and balance the acidity.
Unfortunately, sour cherries are very hard to find. And generally, cherries aren’t the cheapest fruit out there. So, only choose this substitute if you are in an area where cherries grow in abundance and are affordable.
Sour cherries are a great option for almost any rhubarb recipe. They have a firmer texture than strawberries. So, they will hold their own in roasted vegetable recipes or baked pie fillings.
And, they can still be cooked into a jam or sauce. These cherries are versatile and easy to use. Just don’t forget to remove their pips!
4. Tart Apples
Tart apples are a general category of fruit that refers to the flavor of the apple. So don’t go looking for a label that says “tart.”
What you can keep an eye out for is varietals like Granny Smith, Braeburn, and Northern Spy. These are by far the most easy-to-find tart apple types. And, you can even find them easily across the globe!
Like cherries, the apples will also be able to hold some texture when cooked like rhubarb. Similarly, they can be cooked into a soft filling or sauce — they’re incredibly versatile.
Quinces are extremely underrated fruits. While their flavor is also unique in comparison to most other fruits, it will work as a substitute for rhubarb.
These fruits have a very complex flavor profile. They have notes of citrus and are slightly sweet. But, the prominent flavor is tartness, just like rhubarb. So, you have to cook quinces to make them edible and palatable.
Cooking will help release more sweet flavors and give the fruit a sharper taste. This fruit can also be cooked in various ways to get different textures — just like with rhubarb.
The biggest downside is that quinces have to be prepared before you can just cook them. So, no, the downside isn’t all that bad!
Raspberries are another strange option to use as an alternative to rhubarb.
But, and this is a big but, raspberries are expensive, hard to find, and you will need a lot of them to get a little flavor.
Consider this option carefully before taking the plunge. And if you do, we recommend only using it for sauces, coulis, purees, and small batches of filling (for pastries). For example, making a raspberry pie will be costly.
The final alternative on our list today is pomelo. You can also use grapefruits if you want to — they are all extremely similar.
Pomelo is a large, green-yellow-skinned citrus fruit. Once you cut it open, bright, pinkish-orange flesh is revealed.
These citrus fruits are sweeter than grapefruits but very acidic. But, when it comes to rhubarb, it isn’t a bad thing. Like strawberries, the natural sweetness will help automatically balance the acidity.
The only thing to consider when using actual citrus fruits as an alternative is that the texture will be completely different. This option works best for jams, coulis, and filling. Otherwise, only the squeezed juice will work.
Pomelo won’t add any texture to your dishes and is extremely juicy. So, for a pie, it may ruin the crust completely.
Substitute Comparison Chart
|Substitute||Flavor||Downside||Best Used For|
|Strawberries||Very fruity, berry-like flavors. Predominantly sweet, which is why you have to pair it with lemon juice.||Can be difficult to find and expensive if not in season.||Jams, fillings (like for pie or pastries), sauces, purees, or coulis.|
|Cranberries||Not extremely sweet, much more acidic. Noticeably fruity flavors.||Very hard to find and very regional. Also expensive if you need a large amount.||Small fillings, sauces.
|Sour Cherries||Very sour flavor with hints of fruitiness. Not sweet fruits at all, making them an almost perfect substitute.||Very hard to find in some parts of the world. Must remove pips.||Virtually all recipes will work with sour cherries.|
|Tart Apples||Slightly sweet apples, but predominantly bitter (sour). Can add some lemon juice with citrus flavors.||More prep is involved when using tart apples (peeling, coring, and slicing).||These will work for virtually all recipes.|
|Quinces||Slightly sweet, citrus-like flavor with a sharpness to it. But, mostly just tart.||Requires preparation to use.||Works great in almost any rhubarb recipe and will add texture too.|
|Raspberries||Very sweet with slight notes of tartness. But, paired with lemon juice, you can create the right flavor.||Can be hard to find and very expensive. You will also need to use a lot of berries for a small batch of products.||Small fillings, sauces, purees, or coulis.|
|Pomelo||Citrus fruits with noticeable sweet flavors. But, predominately sour.||Has limited ways it can be cooked and won’t work as a universal alternative for rhubarb. Very juicy.||Jams or coulis.|