Features & Stories

Consuming Passions: Rhubarb

Bruce McMichael is a food writer and lemon specialist. His culinary interests and obsessions extend beyond the world of citrus, though, and here he discusses another personal passion, forced rhubarb.

By Bruce McMichael


Long, slender sticks of vibrantly coloured, shocking Schiaparelli pink rhubarb stalks make a welcome return on the shelves of farm shops and grocers in the winter months. The arrival of forced rhubarb in January is celebrated with festivals and celebrations across Yorkshire, north England its traditional home. 

The rhubarb triangle

Today Yorkshire, particularly the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ region marked out between Wakefield, Bradford and Leeds, is the centre for forced rhubarb production, with its unique microclimate and fertile soil contributing to a superior quality of crop. 

Such is their historical value to region that forced rhubarb from Yorkshire has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. This growing technique originated in the early 19th century. Rhubarb crowns are grown in open field for two years before being transplanted into heated, darkened sheds, where they grow tall and straight looking for light. Steeped in compost (and historically also ‘shoddy’, a waste material sourced from nearby cloth mills), they grow quickly. On reaching maturity, the red sticks are pulled by candlelight. This tradition means that minimal natural light enters the shed that would turn the soft yellow leaves into tougher, green leaves.  

The flavour profile of forced rhubarb is distinct from its outdoor-grown counterpart. While both varieties share the characteristic tartness inherent to rhubarb, forced rhubarb tends to be milder and sweeter, with a delicate balance of acidity and sweetness. In fact, the forced rhubarb is harvested by candlelight to maintain the darkness of the environment, preserving its delicate flavour and brilliantly hued appearance.

In the 1950s there were around 200 farms in the Yorkshire triangle producing thousands of tonnes of the vegetable. Today, just some ten farms remain open. It’s a costly and labour intensive process to produce a viable harvest. Its rarity and culinary qualities have turned the crop into a delicacy prized by chefs. See the video below of Marco Pierre White’s visit to one of the main growers.

How to use rhubarb in the kitchen

Rhubarb is a versatile ingredient for the kitchen – it can be baked, stewed, poached, roasted, puréed, steamed or boiled, though Nigella Lawson warns in Cook, Eat, Repeat that if you want your rhubarb to “keep its shape, its colour, its intense rampaging tartness, never do more than chop it, toss it in sugar, cover it with foil and cook it in the oven”. Nigella considers rhubarb and custard a ‘hallowed combination’ and is particularly fond of forced rhubarb, ‘rosy and budding with its rhubarbiness’.

When buying forced rhubarb from your green grocer or farm shop, look out for stalks watermelon pink in colour with pale green leave still attached. Forced rhubarb needs little preparation before cutting or slicing into the shape required by the recipe. Firstly, remove any leaves; wash the stalks before trimming off the top and bottom. Keep the leaves attached for as long as possible, as removing them quickly takes away any stiffness. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous and should be thrown away, perhaps into your compost bin.

Sweet rhubarb dreams


Yorkshire Rhubarb Trifle from On The Menu by James Mackenzie


The early hot pink coloured crop of forced rhubarb has a delicate flavour and texture which makes it the perfect ingredient for chef James Mackenzie’s Yorkshire rhubarb trifle, set off with parkin (a spiced ginger cake also traditionally made in the county) and green ginger wine.

A quick and tasty way to prepare forced rhubarb is simply to cook it with sugar and a splash of water until it breaks down into a thick, jammy compote. Serve the compote either warm or chilled over ice cream, yogurt, or oatmeal. If you have a little more time, chef Paul Heathcote’s Compote of Caramelized Rhubarb with Elderflower Cream and Rhubarb Sorbet (which appears in his book Rhubarb and Black Pudding) adds delicate sophistication to the dessert course.

Rhubarb is also often used for pies (hence its being known as pie-plant in the USA and in Germany as piestangel), but other excellent ways to serve rhubarb include tarts and rice puddings, mousses and fools.


Rhubarb Tart from New British Classics by Gary Rhodes


In Britain the combination of rhubarb and custard is irresistible to many, and Rhubarb Crumble, almost always served with custard, is a one of the countries most popular desserts, combining the tartness of rhubarb with a sweet, crumbly topping. Simply stew the forced rhubarb with sugar until tender, then top with a mixture of flour, butter, and sugar before baking until golden brown. A traditional rhubarb crumble can be played with and reconstructed in crumble truffles or given deeper layers of flavour by roasting the rhubarb and then topping it with vanilla crumble.

Roasting rhubarb is a reliable approach to preserve the beautiful colour and while intensifying the flavour. Italian-born and now London-based chef Danilo Cortellini was unfamiliar with the ingredient when he first arrived in the UK, but now loves it. His crumble al rabarbaro recipe is more of a cake than a traditional crumble — Danilo recommends serving with vanilla Chantilly cream and strawberry coulis


Crumble al Rabarbaro from 4 Grosvenor Square by Danilo Cortellini


Michelin-starred Yorkshire chef Andrew Pern’s Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream is another great creamy and tangy way to end a meal, paired with a slice of traditional Yorkshire parkin.


Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream (served with Yorkshire Parkin) from Black Pudding & Foie Gras by Andrew Pern


Fruitful combinations

The tartness of rhubarb beautifully offsets many other ingredients to create complex and harmonious flavour profiles. Traditional matches include strawberries, oranges and ginger, as in Chef Shaun Hill’s Rhubarb Tart with Ginger Custard. Hill advises “only use tender forced rhubarb for this recipe, the summer outdoor variety is tough and coarse.”

The seasonal blood oranges from Sicily pair well with rhubarb, according to chef and television presenter Matt Tebbutt. He recommends serving his Rhubarb Compote, Blood Orange Cream and Ginger Ice Cream with a crunchy biscuit such as amaretti or hazelnut shortbread.

Meanwhile, Joanne Chang’s Raspberry-Rhubarb muffins show off another winning fruit combination.


Rhubarb Tart with Ginger Custard from Cooking at the Merchant House by Shaun Hill

Raspberry-Rhubarb Muffins from Flour by Joanne Chang


Savoury dishes

Rhubarb is not just for sweet dishes, of course. In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that in Norway, rhubarb soup is popular (so why not try this traditional English recipe for rhubarb soup from food historian Annie Gray). Davidson also notes that in Poland rhubarb is cooked with potatoes and aromatics, while it Iran is used in khorest (stew), and in Afghanistan it is added to spinach.

Sharp but sweet forced rhubarb also pairs well with oily fish such as mackerel. Chef Rowley Leigh notes that ‘the astringent note from rhubarb makes a brilliant adjunct to any oily fish, fulfilling the same role as lemon or that of gooseberries’. Leigh suggests Griddled Mackerel Fillets with Rhubarb, adding fresh basil leaves for a warm note. 


Griddled Mackerel Fillets with Rhubarb from A Long and Messy Business by Rowley Leigh


Fran Warde, in her cookbook New Bistro, says that while pork loin and rhubarb may sound like an unusual combination ‘the acidity of the rhubarb cuts through the richness of the pork and makes this a beautiful dish’.


Pork loin with rhubarb and balsamic vinegar from New Bistro by Fran Warde



The tangy sweetness of forced rhubarb offers the home cook delicious option for making alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. A Rhubarb Vodka Martini, for example, which Zusa Zak rates as “perfect for a girl’s night in”. Or simply steep rhubarb in vodka and sugar for 6 weeks or so to make Rhubarb Schnapps.


Rhubarb and Strawberry Cordial can be made in the early spring using forced rhubarb and frozen strawberries, which have a fresher taste than those found in the shops in the first months of the year. Or try the same flavour combination with added vinegary tartness in a Strawberry Rhubarb Shrub.

Rhubarb on the side

Sauces, condiments and relishes are an important part of the rhubarb cook’s repertoire and can be used to preserve a bumper crop. Making rhubarb chutney is a fairly simple process and ckbk has many and varied options. Combine forced rhubarb with onions, vinegar, sugar, and spices to make a tangy-sweet chutney that pairs perfectly with grilled meats or cheese. Add apples, a little orange zest and some warming spices such as allspice, cloves and cinnamon to make this comforting Rhubarb Apple Chutney

Rhubarb also makes excellent jam, and this is a great way to try out different flavour pairings. Try it as jam on its own, with ginger, with orange, with strawberries, or in Joyce Molyneux’s recipe with angelica .


Pickling rhubarb in tangy brine along with spices allows the vegetable to retain its texture and offers a chewy bite. Pickled rhubarb also often takes advantage of rhubarb’s ability to complement a wide-range of flavours. The Art Of Preserving’s recipe for Pickled Rhubarb includes fresh ginger, chilli powder and yuzu rice vinegar. The final result will keep in the fridge for a month. Like the above-mentioned chutney, pickled rhubarb is ideal to serve with richly flavoured charcuterie and cheeses.

One final piece of advice — remember to taste your forced rhubarb as you cook, adjusting the sweetness or tartness as needed to suit your preferences. With its versatility and bold flavour, forced rhubarb will add a delightful twist to any dish you create.

For more rhubarb inspiration, see Yorkshire-based writer Elaine Lemm’s The Great Book of Rhubarb.

Bruce’s selection of the best rhubarb recipes

View the full collection.

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