Rhubarb syrup even rhubarb-haters will love

Sharon Jessup Joyce

I used to love helping my grandmother make jams and jellies. Strawberry jam around July 1; raspberry jelly in late July; and peach jam in August. As summer gave way to fall, there would be a flurry of preserving, including grape jelly, plum jam, and apple jelly.

I loved everything about preserving, from the mounds of fresh fruit, to the smell of the cooked fruit billowing steamily through the kitchen, to the careful stirring and skimming, to the sight of rows of jewel-toned glass jars, sealed and lined up on the old kitchen table. They were literally the fruits of our labours.

But what I loved most of all was the strained fruit juice we used for jelly. We’d cook the fruit to release its flavour and liquid, and then strain the resulting mash through a cotton bag – usually a clean old pillow case. You were never supposed to squeeze the bag, which would cause the jelly to be cloudy. Instead, we rigged up a hanging bag system, looping strong kitchen twine around the top of the pillowcase, and suspending it from a chair or cupboard door over a basin or large bowl. As the colour of the fruit gradually stained the white fabric of the pillowcase, I’d watch the rich juice trickle in an ever-slowing stream into the bowl beneath. Jam was tasty, with its chunks of fruit, but jelly was magical – clear and sparkling, elegant and concentrated. The only thing was….it was so sweet. Jelly recipes of the day called for two cups (about 500 mL) of fresh, strained fruit juice to 8 cups of sugar, along with pectin as a thickening agent. I wished there was a way to add just a bit of sugar to the strained juice, and use it for lots of things, not just making jelly.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I wanted was a fruit syrup, a traditional product that was very popular in the Victorian era. I started making my own fruit syrups about a decade ago, using fruit left over from other preserving. I’d like to say I came up with the idea through research, but it was simply that I had some crab apple juice I didn’t get around to making into jelly, so I froze it in small containers and used it in so many ways that it became a preserving staple for our kitchen.

I’ve made syrup using lots of different fruits, but my current favourite is rhubarb. It’s one of the most satisfying fruit syrups I’ve ever tasted, since cooking and straining the rhubarb concentrates the flavour and colour, but eliminates the fibrous texture so many people seem to dislike. And you can still get great syrup from tough and stringy late-season rhubarb. Just add a little more water and sugar.

Blog - rhurbarb syrup Two great uses for rhubarb syrup: a champagne cocktail with sparkling wine poured over a frozen rhubarb syrup cube; and a strawberry tart with thickened rhubarb syrup mixed with the strawberries, sugar and corn starch filling.


1 kg fresh rhubarb (about 2 lbs), trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths

½ to 1 cup water (depending on the juiciness of the rhubarb – old fruit is drier)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 to 1 cup white sugar or more, depending on desired sweetness (syrup is very tart with 1/3 cup, and only mildly sweet with 2/3 cup, but this obviously also depends on the tartness of the fruit)


1. Wash, trim and cut rhubarb and place into pot.

2. Add water and lemon juice.

3. Bring water to boil, and then turn down to simmer, and cover.

4. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fruit has fallen apart and the red colour has leached out. This usually takes at least 30 minutes, though I often cook it for another 10-20 minutes to release as much liquid as possible.

5. Remove pot from heat and stir in sugar.

6. Drain juice by placing a large sieve (not a colander, as the holes are too large) over a bowl and ladling the fruit and liquid mixture into the sieve. You may need to do this in batches, so be patient and let each batch drain completely.

7. If you want very clear juice with a minimal amount of that metallic sensation rhubarb causes to the teeth, let the fruit drain on its own; if you want a stronger rhubarb flavour, you don’t mind the metallic sensation, and don’t care if the syrup is a bit cloudy, you can press against the fruit with the back of a large spoon, in order to squeeze as much juice out as possible.

The syrup keeps for about a week in the fridge. You can also freeze it in small containers or ice cube trays, or can it in sealer jars. I have a shelf full of preserving books, but a current favourite is Preserving: the Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (HarperCollins, 2011). If you do decide to can fruit syrup, please follow safe preserving guidelines, which have changed since your grandmother’s day.

You can use this syrup frozen in a cocktail or as a ridiculously delicious popsicle; thickened as an ingredient in pie or tart (it pairs especially well with strawberry, of course); or as is in a glaze or mixed in a drink. When my dad last visited I gave him a drink made from 4 parts sparkling water, 3 parts lemonade, and 1 part rhubarb syrup. He said it was very good – and when we added a bit of sugar syrup, he promoted it to excellent.

Sharon lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she dabbles in the domestic arts and eats very well.
Welcome to our family’s discussion forum on food. If you’d like to submit a post, please consider yourself family, and email us at familyfoodforum@gmail.com.

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

– Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance


3 thoughts on “Rhubarb syrup even rhubarb-haters will love

  1. Strawberry syrup is wonderful, though I find roasting the berries is better than making it on the stovetop. I think it’s because the juiciness of strawberries can result in watery syrup, unless you concentrate the flavour.

    The great thing about the champagne cocktail with a frozen ice cube of rhubarb syrup is that you need a second glass of sparkling wine to use up the syrup — I mean, you just have to do it that way. (And you also need a cocktail stirrer — I want to find those cute, retro glass ones. Has anyone seen them anywhere?)

    Hey, here’s another fun cocktail we invented this summer, using unfrozen syrup: lots of ice, 1 oz spiced rum (amber or dark), 1 oz rhubarb syrup, 1 squeeze fresh lime, stir, top with sparkling water.

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