Sunday 6 January 2013

Pink and perky: forcing rhubarb for an early harvest

Forced rhubarb is that which has been made to grow earlier than usual by being kept in the dark. This is what they do to the rhubarb grown in huge sheds in the famous Wakefield triangle, and sold - at a premium - in shops from December onwards, but it's very easy to force your rhubarb plants on a domestic scale as well. The resulting stems are rosy pink, long and slim. They taste slightly sweeter than conventionally grown stalks, perhaps all the more so for being available when most homegrown produce is either dormant or left over from the autumn.

You can buy special pots for forcing rhubarb but apart from a certain aesthetic appeal I’m not sure what the point of them is. All you need is a bucket, a weight – half a concrete slab will do – and some straw or similar packing material.
Rhubarb crowns covered with pots, weighted and packed with straw
to ensure all light is excluded.
Once your rhubarb shows the first signs of coming to life again in January, up-end the bucket over the budding root. Put the weight on top to ensure the bucket doesn’t get blown over. Pack the straw around the base of the bucket inside and out to ensure that all light is excluded from the interior of the bucket. The budding rhubarb needs total darkness.

Rhubarb bud just showing above the
soil in early January.
Wait six weeks or so – anywhere between four weeks and eight in my experience. Start checking after four, anyway. You should be able to harvest your slim, pale pink, forced rhubarb in February and March.

Make a note of which of your rhubarb crowns you forced this year and do not force these particular plants again next year. Give them a chance to grow on naturally before forcing again.

Forced rhubarb is more tender than conventionally grown stalks so treat it gently for cooking. I love rhubarb crumble but always feel this is a quite a hefty treatment for these more delicate stems. I usually simmer them, either on top of the cooker in a pan, or in the oven, in a very light syrup, or with orange juice. I also like the idea of serving rhubarb with meat or fish as part of the man course - Jamie Oliver teams rhubarb with pork in a number of recipes and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has an interesting-looking recipe for forced rhubarb with mackerel in The Guardian this week.

The buds are simply covered with
an upturned pot.


  1. Are we planting rhubarb for forcing in the secret garden? x

    1. Yes, it will be ready to force around this time next year.