Pickled Rhubarb


I remember my surprise when I first saw rhubarb at the farmers market on a Saturday in May of three years ago. It was the kind that grows outdoors and has big, bright green leaves and dark magenta stalks tinged with green and maroon. It was a beautiful thing to see, and I was excited to start cooking from it – not necessarily because the flavour excited me, but rather for the novelty it held. That same day, I made my first rhubarb crumble. Plain, immediate, uncomplicated and fulfilling. Followed by a rhubarb mess, and finally, a pot of stewed rhubarb and used to top yoghurt, muesli and porridge.

With the classics all pretty much tried and tested multiple times, I recently started experimenting more with rhubarb preserves. I made a pretty nice jam, inspired by a pot given to me by my English aunt, who now lives in Italy, upon one of her visit to the homeland. I also made a syrup to be mixed into cocktails, particularly in gin tonics. It never occurred to me, however, that pickled rhubarb was a thing, which is a shame because it is so very good.

The idea came via a multiple series of lucky events and encounters. The first, a breakfast chat with the talented cook, soon-to-be cookbook author and all-around fantastic woman who is Olia Hercules, who swore by an amazing Ukrainian-style rhubarb pickle ‘with lots of dill, of course, which can then be served with mackerel on brioche. And a casual chat at work with one of my colleagues, Paddy, who happened to have worked with Jeremy Lee and to know of his famous pickled rhubarb…served with grilled mackerel. This colleague also happens to be Anna Tobias’ partner, who cooks rhubarb brilliantly at Rochelle Canteen, and I am sure knows how to make a mean pickle with it.

Serendipitously, these rhubarb chats all happened right before I took a trip to Yorkshire to visit one of the few forced rhubarb growers left, and a consequent journey back to London with a head full of inspired rhubarb thoughts, and a bag packed with bright pink stalks similar to those you see pictured above. Very different from the outdoor rhubarb I had tried thus far. So special, so beautiful. They were begging me to make their presence worthwhile.

Jane Grigson didn’t come very useful this time around. In her otherwise brilliant The Fruit Book, rhubarb has a marginal role: she made it pretty clear that it wasn’t really her thing. She then gives a really peculiar suggestion to poach it in the deep fryer. Now, you didn’t think about it, did you? Maybe this is why my poached rhubarb often turns to mush – or shall I rather say compote? Maybe it’s because I get too distracted too easily, but then again I also don’t have any counter space for a deep fryer. Anyway, no trace of rhubarb pickles there, so I turned elsewhere for inspiration.

Eventually, I settled on the idea of a quick pickle, because I am lazy and keen on fast rewards. The base is formed by cider vinegar combined with just the right amount of sugar to make a sweet pickling liquid to milder the tart flavour of rhubarb. Spices are added as an embellishment to impart secondary aromatic undertones to the pickles, without stealing the scene from the hero. Many recipes call for sweet spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves. I preferred to include something more savoury: ginger – a classic, always a perfect partner to rhubarb – bay leaf, peppercorns, chilli, and only a hint of cloves. All the ingredients are combined into jars, and then the hot vinegar, water and sugar mixture is poured on top to cover the pieces of rhubarb. Jars are quickly sealed and then allowed to rest for 48 hours before opening. This resting time can be shortened – you can theoretically eat them as soon as they have cooled and spent a couple of hours in the fridge. However, a slightly longer resting time allows the liquid to penetrate the rhubarb, making it more tender whilst preserving its crisp bite.

These pickles work wonders with oily fish like mackerel or sardines, either smoked or grilled, as their acidity will cut through the fat and create a nice contrast of textures. Some say they are also good with hard cheese such as a good farmhouse cheddar or even a Gruyere. I am keen to try this pairing next, or hear your thoughts if you give it a try.

Pickled Rhubarb

500g rhubarb stalks (4 large stalks)
2 tsp peppercorns
1/2 tsp cloves
1 tbsp sliced fresh ginger
3 bay leaves
2 dry red chillies
250ml (1 cup) apple cider vinegar
250ml (1 cup) water
200g (1 cup) caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine grain salt

Line two sterilised pint jars with lids. Rinse the rhubarb stalks, scrubbing any residual soil, and trim the leaves and brown ends. Cut into 2-cm long pieces and pack them into the two jars. Divide the rest of the spices between the two jars, then set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Whisk often to help dissolve the sugar and salt. As soon as the pickling liquid is boiling and the sugar and salt are dissolved, pour it into the jars until the liquid covers the rhubarb pieces. Close immediately with the sterilised lids. Allow to cool before storing in the refrigerator.


Let the rhubarb pickles cure for at least 48 hours before eating, then enjoy within two weeks from opening.

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14 Comments

  1. Gelmina March 15, 2015

    Love this recipe Valeria!
    Now I have just a mission quit impossible – to find the rhubarb in land of Italy, where you know there is not very common in markets.. 🙂 Hope to try it anyway!

    Have a nice Sunday!

    Reply
    • Valeria March 15, 2015

      I know and feel your pain – I never ever found rhubarb in Italy and would come home with big bags of them whenever I would visit a German country, or even France! This one from Yorkshire though, it's truly something – worth a trip there in the winter just for seeing it grow and picking some up 🙂 x

      Reply
  2. Saghar Setareh March 15, 2015

    Oh how beautiful! Very mouth watering, literally! I didn't find any rhubarb here this year. We make some jam and sherbet with rhubarb and it's amazing 🙂

    Reply
    • Valeria March 15, 2015

      Oh sherbet – now you really got me hooked. Hope you find some rhubarb sometime and share the recipe because it sounds fantastic! xo

      Reply
  3. Gerlinde de Broekert March 21, 2015

    I'm a big fan of rhubarb and love your idea of pickled rhubarb.

    Reply
    • Valeria March 22, 2015

      It's an unusual way of enjoying rhubarb, and it also has the advantage of allowing you to eat rhubarb for the rest of the year if you make a big enough batch! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Sini April 13, 2015

    Although I've grown up eating a whole lot of rhubarb (it was growing in my grandmom's backyard), I only heard of pickled rhubarb a few years ago. The concept seems wonderful to me but I still haven't given it a go. I really should! Hopefully I'll remember this recipe when rhubarb is in season here in the north – the first ones will appear in May.

    Reply
    • Valeria April 14, 2015

      I can't wait for the outdoor rhubarb also – so much more to experiment with. I am a total newbie with rhubarb so I get very excited about it, everything is new and amazing to me. This was an experiment I was encouraged to give a go to by a group of English friends who would swear by its goodness. I think it is a wonderful, novel way to enjoy it. xo

      Reply
    • Sini April 14, 2015

      One of my favorite rhubarb recipes is my rhubarb strawberry datschi – a variation of a traditional plum sheet cake that is typically eaten in southern Germany. Beyond delicious! If you're interested, you can find the recipe on Food52: https://food52.com/recipes/28286-rhubarb-strawberry-datschi

      Reply
    • Valeria May 10, 2015

      I so so have to try this – now the season for outdoor rhubarb has started, I have yet more chances to cook with this beloved shoot! Thanks for sharing, Sini! xo

      Reply
  5. Vix April 21, 2015

    Hi Valeria, your pictures are so beautiful. I'm in awe! This pickle looks divine too. I had a pickled rhubarb with mackerel at the Clove Club and it was one of my favourite dishes. I'll have to try this recipe one day.

    Reply
    • Valeria May 10, 2015

      Thank you Vicky! You must – it's so so simple! I am sure it's just as good with outdoor rhubarb. xo

      Reply
  6. Anonymous May 22, 2015

    I love Rhubarb pickle but my recipe has Juniper berries in it – tastes great! Jan

    Reply
    • Valeria June 13, 2015

      Hello, that sounds fantastic, I must try with juniper next time, thanks for sharing!

      Reply

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