Until very recently, pickled rhubarb was the sort of thing that would have been most at home on the dining table of another era. I can imagine in the pantry stores of a Southern family circa 1890 or as part of the rations for UK residents during World War II.
For some reason, rhubarb has always been associated with strictly sweet applications, despite the fact that it is actually a vegetable. It's even known in some quarters by the name "Pie Plant." While it does make excellent pie (particularly if you throw a few strawberries in the mix), it's time to see rhubarb as a more multi-faceted thing.
Happily, more and more people are re-discovering the many uses for rhubarb beyond pie and jam. I've seen it briefly simmered and served with pork, or cooked and strained into syrups for cocktails. And a few restaurants with motivated pickling programs have started submerging it in jars of flavored vinegars. Whenever I come across it, I order it immediately.
Thing is, we don't need to hold out for a creative restaurant pickler in order to try pickled rhubarb—make it yourself! Pick up a few stalks next time you see them at a farmers' market or grocery store. I like to cut the stalks into lengths that fit in the jar neatly and cut it into bite-sized pieces just before adding to a cheese plate or tossing into a grain salad.
Before You Get Started
Any variety of rhubarb works for this recipe. Don't avoid the pale green stalks, they may not look as pretty in the jar, but they make up for it in good texture and flavor.
If you like a less sweet pickle, feel free to reduce the amount of sugar in this recipe by up to half. I like the balance that it achieves as written, but the beauty of making your own pickles is that you can adjust the flavors to suit.
Make sure to save the leftover pickling liquid once all the stalks are gone; it becomes a defacto drinking vinegar during the pickling process.
Don't skip the processing step and call this one a refrigerator pickle. It needs the heat of the processing pot to develop the right texture.