The Best Bowl of Oatmeal
After making 50 batches of oatmeal, we make porridge worth eating again by using steel-cut oats and a simple toasting method that greatly enhances flavor.
The challenge: The oatmeal that graces the bowls of most American breakfast tables—rolled—is generally scorned by those masters of oatmeal making, the Scottish and the Irish. Saying that rolled oats make a "sloppy bowl of porridge," they turn to the steel-cut variety when making their breakfast. We set out to see which variety of oats, cooked in what particular way, would make the best bowl of oatmeal by our standards, the most flavorful and the creamiest without being mushy.

The solution: Oats are a cool-climate crop that make for excellent animal feed but must be cleaned, toasted, hulled, and cleaned again if they are to be used for human consumption. At the end of the process, what you have are called oat groats. The oat cereal product most familiar to American households (next to Cheerios) is rolled oats. They’re made by steaming oat groats and then flattening them with large rollers. In supermarkets, you will find two varieties of rolled oats, regular (also known as old-fashioned) and quick-cooking. Steel-cut oats, also known as Scotch oats or Irish oatmeal, are groats that have been cut into a few pieces but have not been otherwise processed or rolled.
Making oatmeal from steel-cut oats takes considerably longer than with regular rolled oats (25 to 30 minutes total versus 5 to 10), but we learned that the outcome is very much worth the wait. Even regular rolled oats, the least processed of the rolled varieties, turns out cereal that is insubstantial, drab, and flecky in texture. (The instant stuff, which is highly processed and often sold in individual flavor packets, is still worse-- a gelled oath chaff that is quick to give up its moisture and its heat.) The hot cereal made from steel-cut oats, on the other hand, had a faint nutty flavor, and while its consistency was surprisingly creamy, it was also toothsome; there was a firm core to the oat granules that whimsically popped between your teeth when chewed.
During the course of testing, we discovered a number of techniques that helped bring out these appealing qualities still further. Toasting the oats in a skillet with a little butter before cooking lent them a sweet and rounded nutty flavor. Adding the oats to simmering—rather than cold or boiling—water produced oatmeal that was creamy but not mushy, with just a hint of chew. Thinking that simmering with the pot covered might speed up the process, we produced a gummy bowl of oatmeal. Uncovered was the best route. Cooking with milk in addition to water contributed nicely to creaminess, adding a pleasant roundness in texture and flavor that was absent when the cereal was cooked in water only.
The proper stirring of oatmeal is an art unto itself. Although many oatmeal recipes call for frequent stirring, we found that when cooked at a moderate simmer the oats don’t need constant attention for the first 20 minutes. We found that it’s in the final five to eight minutes, when the cereal has swelled and just a bit of liquid remains on top, that the pot must be stirred to blend the liquid and oats and to prevent sticking. Following an old tradition, we confirmed that the rounded handle end of a wooden spoon is the best stirring tool. Stirring with the usual end of spoon, like stirring early in the cooking process or stirring frequently, results in a mushier, less toothsome oatmeal.

For good measure: It’s important to let the oatmeal rest uncovered, off the heat, for about five minutes before serving; this gives the creamy grains a chance to pull together, as in a pudding. For this reason it’s also important that the oatmeal still be a bit liquidy when pulled of the heat.

Serves 3 to 4

Many supermarkets sell prepackaged steel-cut oats, but we found they were often stale and always expensive. A better option is to purchase them in the bulk section of a natural food store. To double the recipe, use a large skillet to toast the oats; increase the cooking time to 10 to 15 minutes once the salt has been added. If desired, pass maple syrup or brown sugar separately when serving, or try the topping below.

3 cups water
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup steel-cut oats
¼ teaspoon salt

1. Bring water and milk to simmer in large saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, heat butter in medium skillet over medium heat until just beginning to foam; add oats and toast, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until golden and fragrant with butterscotch-like aroma, 1 ½ to 2 minutes.
2. Stir toasted oats into the simmering liquid, reduce heat to medium-low; simmer gently, until mixture thickens and resembles gravy, about 20 minutes. Add salt and stir lightly with spoon handle. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon handle, until oats absorb almost all liquid and oatmeal is thick and creamy, with a pudding-like consistency, about 7 to 10 minutes. Off heat, let oatmeal stand uncovered 5 minutes. Serve immediately, with the following topping, if desired.

Makes about 1 cup, enough for 4 servings oatmeal

5 ounces dried figs (about 1 cup), each fig quartered and stemmed
1 ½ tablespoons honey
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Bring figs, honey, 1 ½ tablespoons water, vanilla, and cinnamon to simmer in small saucepan over medium-high heat; cook until liquid reduces to glaze, about 4 minutes. Spoon a portion over individual bowls of hot oatmeal; serve immediately.

Almost all of the recipes that called for steel-cut oats also called for the addition of salt to the oatmeal only after it had cooked for at least 10 minutes. After trying a batch in which I added the salt to the water before adding the oats, I found out there was good reason for this practice—salt added beforehand hardened the meal and prevented the grains from swelling. To find out why, I contacted Professor Chuck Walker, who teaches a course on breakfast cereal technology at Kansas State University. He explained that under slow-cooking conditions and without the addition of salt, a lot of starch and pentosans, a group of naturally occurring gums, leach out through the oats’ cell walls. While all cereal grains contain pentosans, oats have an unusually large amount. These gums love water, so they prefer to leach out into the cooking water, which is why oats make for such a creamy hot cereal. Like the pentosans, salt is also strongly attracted to water. So if it is added at the beginning of the cooking process, it essentially will compete with the starch and gums for the water. This is why you get a less creamy cereal.

March, 2000
Original article and recipes by Maryellen Driscoll