Rhubarb crumbles and pies have been firm favourites in the UK for generations. But rhubarb has come in and out of fashion over the years, with the pink and sweet ‘Yorkshire forced’ rhubarb being highly prized in top London restaurants. This hardy vegetable has a strong, tart flavour with stalks that look similar to celery. It thrives on cold winters and can be harvested early. An incredibly versatile ingredient, it can be preserved by pickling, made into jams and jellies, and cooked in both sweet and savoury dishes. Rhubarb is also used to flavour cocktails and gins. The vegetable has an impressive nutritional profile, packed with vitamin C, K, calcium, and potassium, in addition to fibre.
Rhubarb can be dated back to around 2700 BC when it was discovered in Siberia. However, it was not cultivated in the UK until around 1800. With the advent of affordable sugar to neutralize the tart flavour, rhubarb soon became part of the UK’s cuisine. At this time, the county of Yorkshire began growing the curious vegetable in large dark sheds. The area where rhubarb is still grown in West Yorkshire is often referred to as the “rhubarb triangle”, with coveted EEC Protected Destination of Origin (PDO) status. Prior to 1939, when rhubarb was at its peak production in the region, a specially commissioned train ran from Yorkshire to London, dubbed the rhubarb express. Outdoor rhubarb is less sweet than forced but is still delicious. Rhubarb remains an undiscovered ingredient by many, so I encourage you to get experimenting!
Season & Cultivation
You can find Yorkshire forced rhubarb not long after welcoming in the New Year. Due to the forced conditions, the rhubarb is tricked into thinking it’s spring, producing dazzling pink crops in season from mid-January to March. However, the word ‘forced’ should give you the clue this is an unnatural process. Forced rhubarb is cultivated in large heated sheds with dark, humid conditions. This method makes the rhubarb grow so fast it can be heard squeaking and popping. Virtually all forced rhubarb farms use unsustainable power sources to heat the sheds, making both ‘forced’ and ‘hothouse’ rhubarb (where heated greenhouses are used), an environmentally poor solution for impatience. It’s best to wait until April through to June to enjoy outdoor-grown rhubarb in season.
If you want to grow your own organic rhubarb, then plant in the autumn in well-drained, fertile soil and preferably in full sunlight. Rhubarb plants are heavy feeders, so make sure you mix plenty of organic matter into the soil such as compost, manure or roots and leaves from rhubarb plants that you have dug up. Preferred conditions for rhubarb crops are where the average temperature falls below 40ºF in the winter and below 75ºF in the summer.
When buying rhubarb, look for stalks that are fresh, crisp, and free of blemishes. If the leaves are attached, ensure they are also fresh and haven’t wilted. But be sure to remove these before cooking as they are toxic. Rhubarb is best stored in cool and humid conditions. Your fridge can dry rhubarb out because of the dry air. A perfect way to create a humid environment for rhubarb is to wrap it in a dry reusable cloth inside a perforated plastic bag. Then place the bag inside the vegetable drawer of your fridge. The cut stalks will keep for two to four weeks in your fridge, you can refresh them before use, by standing them in cold water.
Raw rhubarb can be tart, tasteless, and stringy – so it’s best cooked. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be stewed with copious amounts of sugar. While most rhubarb will make its way into crumbles and pies with custard, it’s a versatile ingredient ideal for savoury dishes. The sour flavour works well in cutting through oily meat and fish dishes. Rhubarb is often paired with ginger, so why not try frying it with soy sauce and ginger to create a zingy stir fry. Or bake it with turmeric, cumin, and chilli powder to top a rich curry.