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Rethink Your Oatmeal

One popular parlor-game version of culinary history consists of guffawing over the details of an old recipe — for instance, these directions for oatmeal in the 1880 manual “Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book and Marketing Guide” by Maria Parloa:

“Oatmeal, Indian meal [i.e., cornmeal] and hominy all require two things for perfection — plenty of water when put on to boil, and a long time for boiling. Have about two quarts of boiling water in a large stew-pan, and into it stir a cupful of oatmeal, which has been wet with cold water. Boil one hour, stirring often, and then add half a spoonful of salt, and boil an hour longer. If it should get too stiff, add more boiling water; or, if too thin, boil a little longer. You cannot boil too much.”

You can just hear the shrieks of “Oh, our funny old ancestors.” After all, don’t standard rolled oats take about 15 minutes to cook, “quick-cooking” and “instant” kinds much less? Don’t the package directions for all brands of those “steel-cut” oats still favored by some antiquity-worshipers invariably tell you to cook them for something like 30 or at most 40 minutes? Isn’t this timing really of a piece with those ancient recipes telling you to boil string beans for at least an hour?

Chortle as you will. Miss Parloa was right.

To retrace her steps, immediately throw out any kind of rolled oats in the house, or at least shove them into the back of a cabinet. They are a travesty of proper oats. Steel-cut oats (called “pinhead oatmeal” in some regions) are what you need. I prefer American brands like Bob’s Red Mill, mostly found in health-food stores. The widely sold McCann’s from Ireland can also be acceptable as long as you ignore the package directions — though come to think of it, these are equally misleading for most brands.

My basic method is close to Miss Parloa’s, though it uses more water. What it produces is a luxury and a pleasure that deserves rediscovering as much as good artisanal bread did a few decades ago.

Think of the basic principle as 2-2-2. For each serving, use about 2 heaping tablespoons of steel-cut oats to a generous 2 cups of cold water and cook the porridge about 2 hours. Every brand, maybe even different batches of the same brand, will behave a little differently. But oats are essentially a very forgiving grain, equally good whether you start with cold or boiling water.

Basic recipe for two people: Pick a morning when the pot can simmer without time constraints. Put 4 heaping tablespoons of steel-cut oats into a small saucepan, add a quart (or slightly more) of cold water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and let it cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula, for an hour. By this point the water will be partly thickened, as the cut grains gradually start releasing dissolved starch and soluble fiber.

Add a large pinch or two of salt, lower the heat slightly and cook approximately another hour, paying closer attention and stirring more often. More and more of the silky, fine stuff inside the grains will continue to dissolve out. If you strained it off to eat by itself, you’d have oatmeal gruel — but that’s not what we’re after. Reduce the heat or add water as necessary to keep the cereal from sticking, or turn it up a bit if things look overly soupy. The porridge is ready when it’s very creamy-looking and the bits of steel-cut grain are more than twice their original size.

Miss Parloa knew whereof she spoke when she said that oatmeal couldn’t be boiled too much. It will be if anything more delicate and silky after three hours, though you must add more water and keep checking the pot.

Eat it piping hot. Old-timers in the British Isles used to eat porridge with buttermilk, still a great idea. For me, the ideal addition is a chunk of good butter.

But before putting anything on it, first taste one trial spoonful and savor the contrast between the lightly creamy smoothness of the dissolved gruel and the nutty bite of the cooked grains. Who knew that plain oatmeal could be so purely sensuous? Well, actually everybody, before some fool ruined it by pre-steaming and squashing the grains into rolled oats. But it’s not too late to rediscover true oatmeal in its glory.

Postscript: If the two-hour schedule appalls you, try pouring about 1/2 cup of water over the grains the night before and letting them sit until morning. This may chop 30 to 40 minutes off the cooking time, slightly more or less for different brands.

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.

Photo: Steel-cut oatmeal. Credit: Robyn Mackenzie/

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.

  • Christina 1·19·13

    DEAR GOD. This is amazing! I just made it. And was completely skeptical. And following your advice, I melted a nice chunk of butter into it just before eating. Holy crap, I’m in love – sooooo worth the time! I’m making this every weekend morning I have time to now 🙂

  • Anne Mendelson 2·4·13

    Glad you checked it out! Thanks for reporting your experience.

    (By the way, when you don’t have two hours to spend on the BEST oatmeal, what they call “Scots” or “Scottish” style is by far the best alternative. It’s cut fine enough to cook in 10 – 15 minutes, but has real texture without that dull cardboard quality of rolled oats.)

    Thanks, Anne

  • Mary 3·11·14

    Have you experimented with overnight in the slow cooker? I can see doing that more easily than simmering for two hours on the stove in the morning. 😎