Two Paths to Oatmeal Porridge

A bowl of cooked, but not gluey, oatmeal.

A bowl of cooked, but not gluey, oatmeal. The tiny pink spots are dried apple chips.

Good news. Oatmeal does not have to be like glue!

A little while ago, elsewhere in a piece on comfort food, I mentioned my household’s divergent porridge propensities. I was so surprised to hear hot oatmeal opinions and questions from several people, many of the “I hate sticky oatmeal” sort. Oatmeal suffers a little from a bad reputation, caused mostly, I’ll bet, by sometimes artificially-flavored, pre-sweetened, powdery fluff in an envelope that turns to sludge when added to water and microwaved. No wonder people think oatmeal is yucky. What a pity.

My dad ate oatmeal for breakfast virtually every day of his adult life. My mom disliked it, but bought him instant oatmeal which he stirred up in the same little pan every morning. I tried it and thought it was awful, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I had a taste of non-instant oatmeal, and wondered where it had been all my life.

At our house, we have two schools of thought about how to prepare oatmeal. I prefer rolled or steel-cut oats prepared as one might cook rice, so that each flake or grain softens and separates. Toby likes a softer, stickier porridge.

I suppose instant oatmeal is good for the person who leaves the house for work fifteen minutes after their feet hit the deck. Fortunately, working at home as I do, I can take a little longer to fix it. I tend to cook it on top of the stove where I can watch it carefully, and I find I can eat it about fifteen minutes after I start cooking it.

A two cup measure half-full of water and a one cup measure three-quarters full is, for me, the perfect proportion of oatmeal to water.

A two cup measure half-full of water and a one cup measure three-quarters full is, for me, the perfect proportion of oatmeal to water.

I use a higher proportion of oatmeal to water than is usually recommended on the package, putting the oats into hot water as I do for rice, and setting a lid on the pot so it both simmers and steams a little. I check back to see if the flakes have swelled as much as they can, and add a dribble more of water if needed. I generally avoid vigorous stirring, instead moving the oatmeal gently with a spoon. For Toby, I add more water to the pan, and stir it around more to get that soft, sauce-like consistency he prefers.

Oatmeal absorbs all kinds of good stuff like raisins, cinnamon, dried blueberries, and so on, and is wonderful with more stuff dumped on top, like nuts, seeds, or fruit. My niece Sarah gave us some terrific little home-dried apple chips which cook up beautifully with the oatmeal. I like mine with milk and brown sugar. Toby likes his with a dab of butter, sugar and milk.

At least one person I corresponded with told me that she hated oatmeal all her life, and tried my simmer-and-steam method. To her astonishment, she finds she really likes oatmeal after all. So I thought I would delineate my method here in the hopes of converting other mushy-oatmeal haters.

Plus, need I mention that oatmeal is economical? If you can wean porridge-haters off the costly, sugary cereal in a box, you can save yourself a few dollars.

Firm Oatmeal Porridge

1 cup water

¾ cup non-instant rolled oats

A few grains of salt

Bring the water to a boil, then add the salt and oatmeal, and reduce the heat to simmer. Put a lid on the pan, slightly cocked to allow some steam to escape. Check the pan in ten minutes, and gently stir the oatmeal. Sample a few grains; if it is still a little dry, add a tablespoon or so of water, take off the heat, and put the lid on tightly. Let stand for two to three minutes, and sample again. Repeat if necessary. Oatmeal is done when the grains are puffed and tender and mostly separate from one another.

Makes two servings.

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Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.