21 October 2010

Three bowls of oats

What do you think of when you think of oatmeal? It is sweet powdery packets mixed with boiling water, or microwaved with milk? Is it flakes cooked to thin paste on the stovetop? (Was that leading the witness?) Is it nutty, chewy wholesome steel-cut oats, finished with butter and a bit of honey, or some dried fruit? (That was definitely leading the witness.)

If oatmeal makes you think of peaches and cream packets or those flakes, I humbly suggest you try the other kind. It's possible you're intimidated by it. It takes too long. It's more expensive than the flakes. You don't own a spurtle.

Papa Bear's

Now, I am not an oatmeal expert. I was born in Texas, not Scotland or Ireland, and the portions of my family that were from those lovely oat-filled places moved to the mid-West of the United States and assimilated long before I was born. But I do know that not only are steel-cut oats better for you than the packets (which are really no better nutritionally than cold cereal) but they're so much tastier that while they do take longer than the flakes (and certainly longer than the packets.) and it does cost a bit more than the cannister with the smiling be-wigged man on the front that they're worth it (unless it's a choice between paying the heating bill and the steel-cuts, in which case by all means by the store-brand flakes and God bless.) And don't just check out the price of a canister of McCann's and declare poverty. I buy mine in a much more sensibly priced cardboard canister, and any store with a bulk-food section will probably have steel-cut oats for a reasonable price. As for the spurtle, I'm sure it's very good at its job, but I've never had a problem using an ordinary wooden spoon or a silicone spatula.

Why do steel-cut oats taste better than their steam-cooked, rolled flat cousins? First, because the rolled oats have to be steamed to roll flat, the starch inside has already been cooked once, which means it won't seep out and create a lovely creamy sauce for your little oat friends to swim in, think risotto. Second, by the time they've been steamed and rolled and cooked again there just isn't much structural integrity left, so they don't have contrast in texture between the oats and the sauce. Steel-cut oats, in contrast, create a beautiful creamy sauce and retain some chewiness.

Mama Bear's

This is a story of threes, so I have three ways to cook steel-cut oats to share. My basic ratio is 1 part oats to 3 parts water. The canister (and most other places) say 1 oats: 4 water, but I prefer my oatmeal to be a bit less soupy, so I use less water. You can play around with the ratio to find what you like best without changing the basic cooking procedure. I also use a tiny pinch of salt per ¼ cup of raw oats. It's just a wee bit of salt, but it does make a difference, so unless you really, really cannot have salt, please put it in.

[edit: 12/4/10 Based on Justine's comment below, I've adapted my stovetop method, and you should too.  Check it out here.]

Stove-top: In a large saucepan, combine oats, water, and salt, and bring to a boil. Keep an eye on it here, as all that lovely starch will happily make big gluey bubbles and boil right out of the pot. Once the pot is boiling, stir, cover and reduce heat to lowest setting. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 40 minutes. You can reduce the cooking time by soaking the oats, water and salt in the pot over night and then cook as above. These can be done in as little as 20 minutes, so do keep an eye on them. 

Rice Cooker: I did it this way until my family's appetite for oatmeal outgrew my rice cooker's capacity. I clearly need a bigger rice cooker. Because of the gluey bubbles issue, I recommend filling your rice cooker no more than 2/3 full. My little 3 cup cooker therefore only accommodated ½ cup raw oats and 1 1/2 cups water. You can use the porridge setting if your cooker has one, but if you only have an “on” switch that will work as well. My cooker had a timer, so I could set it to be ready at 7:00 am and it would beep at me to tell it was ready as I dragged myself and my son out of bed. If you don't have a timer, you can buy one of those plug in timers and set it that way, or just set up the oats the night before and then remember to go hit the on button before you get in the shower.

Crock-pot: Easy, easy, easy: oats, water, salt, lid, turn it on low, go to bed, wake up to oatmeal.

Baby Bear's

Once it's cooked, what do you do with it? You can stir in a bit of butter if you're feeling extravagant, or not, if you're feeling austere. You can top it with honey or milk or cream or maple syrup or dried fruits or chopped nuts or fresh fruits or frozen fruits or brown sugar. Or you can decide to go savory and add soy sauce, or fried onions, or scallions or a poached egg or cheddar cheese and bacon. There's no reason it has to be sweet, or breakfast for that matter.

Err on the side of making too much, whatever you do, unless you're being very strict about calories, because ¼ cup of raw oats doesn't make a huge bowlful. And if there are leftovers, just store them in a lidded bowl in the fridge until the next morning, when they are happy to be reheated for a breakfast that's even more convenient that the little powdery packets. (You could even make a week's worth in the crockpot and then dish out what you need each morning. Voila, your timing issues are solved.)

As for the rolled oats? They are good for three things:

  1. Granola
  2. Seal up a handful in the toe of an old (washed) stocking or a bit of cheese-cloth and toss in the bath anytime you're feeling dry, itchy or insufficiently pampered. Soak both you and the oats together, squeezing the oatmeal packet occasionally until you feel better.


  1. Yum. I'm usually dashing out the door with an apple and a decaf latte (the homemade kind, not the Starbucks kind), but I do like oatmeal. I had a recipe from Cook's Illustrated a while ago that suggested toasting the oats on the stovetop in just a tiny bit of butter first, to bring out the nutty flavor. It was remarkably good.

  2. You are a font of useful information.

    As the token Irish person (perhaps), I have to admit that I'd never heard of steel-cut oats till I moved to the USA. (I'd never heard of instant oatmeal either, mind you.) Our porridge was always just rolled oats that cooked in five minutes on the stovetop (or two if you'd soaked them overnight), with brown sugar and top-of-the-milk. (The thin cream that rose to the top of the milk bottle, which had been left on the doorstep by the milkman. Ah, those were the days.)

  3. Superstitious Hebridean Former Officemate Catriona said that if you had no spurtle, it was better to turn the wooden spoon upside down and stir your porridge with the handle. She swore it mattered.

    Also, if you look, sometimes you can find canisters of steel-cut oats with the smiling bewigged man on the front. I think they are somewhat more expensive than the rolled oats but significantly cheaper than McCann's.

  4. With all due respect to Catriona's Hebridean superstitions, I call shenanigans. Unless she'd been subjected a blind taste test I think it's nostalgia colo(u)ring her experience.



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