From oats to groats, Andrew Coppolino's porridge shows grits

Humans have been cultivating grains such as wheat, corn and barley for millennia but as Andrew Coppolino writes, despite a maligned history, oats is having a comeback.

Grains a human staple for eons, but oats never got the glamour treatment

Once described as food for the Scottish but fit only for English horses, oats is making a comeback in the kitchen as interest in porridge grows. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Cereals like wheat, barley, rye and oats became staple crops for the first human farmers some 15,000 years ago. Along with rice and corn, we have been eating these grains ever since.

Ancient farmers soon learned that specific cereals could survive and thrive in either warmer or cooler conditions, or were, like oats, hearty enough to stand up to wet and damp, rather than dry, climates. Cereals such as wheat, of course, eventually became the primary raw material for leavened breads that have sustained entire populations.

A world of porridges

Porridge, most commonly made from oats (which many farmers considered weeds and ripped them from their fields to feed their livestock), became another staple in the early diet.

Porridge is a generic term for a thick mash-like grain dish cooked in water. It's eaten in dozens of cultures around the world. For instance in Lombardy, northern Italy, polentina is prepared for breakfast: it is a thin corn-meal mush served with milk and sugar. Eastern Europeans might eat kasha, the Chinese may dish up rice and water congee for breakfast. In the southern United States it's grits made from corn, served with bacon and eggs or on their own with cheese.

For the Scottish, it is oatmeal, "a grain," according to 18th-century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, "which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Oatmeal cookies are another tasty example of oat-based dishes having a resurgence in popularity. (Gary Graves/CBC)

Oatmeal: food for horses

Oatmeal has a rags-to-riches story from animal feed to health food. While the ready-to-eat cold breakfast cereal market is slumping, the classic hot cereal breakfast, a humble, rustic bowl, is both filling and nutritious. It makes for a perfect breakfast at the coldest time of the winter.

In fact oatmeal, along with other cereals and seeds such as buckwheat, millet and quinoa, has been growing in popularity as a breakfast food since 2012, according to research firms NPD Group and Serecon Management Consulting.

Processing out the nutrition

Barley, oats and other grains are covered by a tough skin that needs to be removed before milling. Beneath that husk, cereals have thin layers of cells that contain starch and protein. There is more starch and less protein closer to the centre of the kernel; therefore, the more the kernel is milled, the less nutritious the cereal is because those outer layers account for most of the healthy oils, fibre, B-vitamins and up to 25 per cent of the protein of the kernel.

Historically, grains were milled in order to make them easier to cook and chew, extend their shelf life and make them more aesthetically pleasing – the Elizabethans, for instance, put great emphasis on food that was white. The irony here is that by milling and polishing grains to the extent we do, we then need to add artificial vitamin B and iron to the cereals to restore their nutrition value. 

What the terms mean

Oats and oatmeal do, however, represent a good source of protein: while one egg has about six grams of protein, half a cup of whole oats has almost seven grams – and is a whole lot more filling to eat. 

There are a few terms to know when filling your breakfast bowl with hearty cereals like oatmeal: 

  • Groats: The hulled and crushed kernels of barley, buckwheat or oats are called groats. They are virtually unprocessed and require soaking and longer cooking; however, they provide excellent texture and nutrition.
  • Steel-cut oats: Also known as Scottish or Irish oats (and, apparently, Queen Elizabeth II's favourite), steel-cut oats, as their name implies, are groats with only their outer husk removed and which have been cut by sharp steel blades a few times. This maintains their nutritional quality and texture but speeds up cooking time considerably.
  • Rolled oats, quick oats, instant oats: Again, as the name implies, these oats have been steamed and rolled into flakes of descending thickness. This makes for quicker cooking times but also a bit less nutritional value due to the processing. Beware of flavoured instant oats which may contain salt and sugar.

Porridge Recipe: DIY

Hearty hot cereal mash-up

3 cups water
1/3 cup steel-cut oats
1/3 cup Red River cereal
1/3 cup your choice (quinoa, barley, millet, etc.)
Pumpkin seeds (or other seeds and nuts)
Chopped dried fruit of your choice (dates, figs, raisins, currants, apricots)
Cream, milk or almond milk 
Brown sugar or maple syrup

Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan and salt it lightly. Slowly stir in the grains and reduce heat to a simmer. Let the grains cook according to package directions, stirring occasionally. The thicker grain kernels will need longer cooking times, but they offer a varied texture at varying degrees of doneness.

Remove the sauce pan from the heat. Stir in the pumpkin seeds and dried fruit and let them soften in the cereal for seven minutes or so, or to taste. 

Serve with cream or milk (or almond milk if you want to avoid dairy) and brown sugar or maple syrup if desired.

Read more stories from CBC Kitchener-Waterloo food columnist Andrew Coppolino