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Prior to my conversion, I thought there were only two types of oats. The proper kind which rejoice in the comfortingly stout subtitle "jumbo rolled", and instant sawdust.
How wrong I was. All the porridge big guns use oatmeal instead — indeed, rolled oat flakes are forbidden in the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Championships yes, it exists and Sybil Kapoor pronounces them "tasteless and pappy in the porridge". Chastened, I go back to the books, and acquaint myself with Avena sativa afresh.
According to Catherine Brown's Scottish Regional Food , once the outer husk of the oat has been removed, the kernel or, more medievally, the groat , can take one of three paths. Either it will be steamed, then rolled into jumbo oat flakes, or it can be cut in half "pinhead" and then eaten as is or steamed and rolled to make ordinary oat flakes, or it can be ground into coarse, medium or fine oatmeal. Not are the non-steamed oats apparently more nutritious although Harold McGee disputes this , but, after testing a standard recipe from the Ballymaloe Cookery School bible, they seems to retain a stronger, more distinctive flavour, and a more interesting texture.
My normal porridge suddenly seems disappointingly gloopy. Saying that, I find the pinhead slightly too chewily wholesome on its own, but the medium one brings the inevitable comparison to wallpaper paste, which puts me off trying any fine ground oatmeal. I'm torn — I want my porridge to have some texture, but first thing in the morning is no time for grim chewing. Sue Lawrence, author of a number of books on Scottish cooking and MasterChef champion , back when they had red kitchens and Loyd Grossman's puzzling vowels , uses a mixture of the two, and once I've adjusted her ratio to include a bit more nubbly, nutty pinhead, I feel I've done the oat question justice.
Scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we'd still be eating be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. Full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a Puritan thinness of flavour. After a bit of juggling, I settle for a ratio of milk to water. Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin uses a ratio of oats to liquid , while Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel opts for a more generous , and cooks them for about 5 times as long.
I find Tom's become gluey before they're cooked through, and the Balmoral version too loose — Ballymaloe's works perfectly for me. You can soak your oats overnight to speed up the cooking time — oatmeal, particularly pinhead oatmeal, takes longer to cook than the ready-steamed, rolled flakes. Simon Humphreys, who came third in the Golden Spurtle in , reckons that soaking is "an absolute must to ensure the perfect consistency" but I'm not convinced, after testing, that it makes much difference.
If you remember the night before, however, it may save you 5 minutes the next morning. Anna Louise Batchelor, winner in the "speciality" category of the Golden Spurtle, with her Spotted Dick Porridge Pudding , makes her porridge in a bain marie, or porringer, which prevents it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, and means that the oats cook more slowly, which apparently gives them more flavour. This surprises me because, with the frequent stirring advocated by Sue Lawrence and Ballymaloe's Darina Allen, I haven't had any problems with them catching, but I give it a try anyway. It takes such a long time to cook that I'm ill-disposed towards it from the start, but even so, I'm prepared to swear there's no difference to the flavour.
One thing that does noticeably improve the taste of my porridge, however, is toasting the oats, as one would when making the Scottish pudding, cranachan , before cooking them. It only takes a couple of minutes, and gives the finished dish a distinctly nutty, roasted flavour. F Marian McNeill, author of the classic, The Scots Kitchen, advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, "in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise" rather than heated with the water in the pan.
Darina Allen agrees, but, having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast. Jeff Bland, the executive chef at the Balmoral, claims that "one of the most important things is once the porridge is cooked, to turn off the hob, put a lid on it, and just let it sit there for minutes".
He's right, although, for a smaller quantity of porridge, I think five or so is sufficient — not only is the porridge just cool enough to eat, but it seems to have developed a bit more flavour in the meantime. Salt is a must in porridge, whether you plan to get all Sassenach with the sugar later or not. Nigel Slater claims that if you add it too early, it toughens the oats, which makes sense: the same applies to beans, but Dorothy Hartley's Food in England directs one to add the oats to ready-salted water. With all that pinhead oatmeal, I'm not sure I can detect any difference in texture, but adding the salt later, when much of the liquid has evaporated, allows me to better judge how much I'll need.
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How to Make Rice Porridge
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