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It’s oatmeal season

That unmistakeable autumnal nip in the morning air has me suddenly craving a hot bowl of porridge, just the way my grandmother made it.

It also has me rearranging cooking magazines in my predictably Virgoan way; gone are the cheerful lemon-yellow and cherry-red covers of summer, promising “quick and easy outdoor entertaining.” In their place on my coffee table and cookbook holder are the rich pumpkin gold and aubergine purple covers of autumn, promising “robust and comforting” foods…for quick and easy entertaining.

I don’t actually go out and buy all new magazines; I save them for years. I long ago realized that there is a 5-year turn-around for “in” foods and even less for cover photos: there are just so many ways to depict a garden fresh salad or roast turkey.

As it happens, the “new” Country Living I bought in August has an October date; one has to wonder what happened to September, and even sadder, the new Bon Appetit for September highlights the restaurants and chefs of New Orleans.

While placing a favourite cover with luscious pomegranates into the place of honour, it fell open—or would have if the pages weren’t so dreadfully stuck together— at a recipe for Apple crumb squares with apple cider sauce. A quick glance at the ingredients reminded me that I had had some problems with the recipe, which I must have dealt with (or ignored) at the time as evidenced by the food-spattered page.

The first ingredient was “1 cup old-fashioned rolled oat.” Old-fashioned oats? My mom used to use Quaker oats; is that old-fashioned enough? But it specifically asked for “old-fashioned.” There must be a catch.

I went to Harvest Thyme and Village foods to look at their shelves and saw at least 8 different oat and oatmeal products: Scottish oatmeal, pin-head oatmeal, old-fashioned rolled oats (regular), old-fashioned rolled oats (thick), quick rolled oats, instant rolled oats, large flake oats, and wild oats: times this by two for organic.

And then I’m watching Oprah, and she introduces us to the woman who won a million bucks in the Pillsbury Bake-off with her Oats and Honey Granola Pie. She told Oprah that she preferred old-fashioned oatmeal to which Oprah added that she only uses steel-cut oats for her oat cakes.

What is going on here; what happened to just plain old —but apparently not “old-fashioned”— oatmeal from my childhood; the stuff in the familiar canister with the smiling old guy in the weird hat?

The answer is that oats are very “in.” Now that oat meal and oat bran have been linked to so many health benefits, from lowered cholesterol, to reducing cancer risk, to aiding in weight loss, there is a strong market for it. In fact, there has been a steady incline in all whole-grains over the past several years.

All oat products start with the oat groat, the whole grain from the oat plant that has been hulled, leaving the bran intact. These oat groats are eaten in some countries like rice; they take quite awhile to cook, even after soaking, retaining their texture and chewiness.

Old-fashioned, regular, and large-flake oats (or “oatmeal” or “oat flakes”) are all produced by first steaming the whole groat and flattening it with rollers. They retain the bran and most of the nutrients of the whole groat, but take less time to cook, usually about 15 minutes, without going mushy.

Some companies make several thicknesses of rolled oats, which affects both texture and cooking time. I’m guessing that a label stating both old-fashioned and regular indicates the “usual” thickness. There are so many meanings for the word “regular,” especially when we are discussing whole grains!

The Quaker company in the late 1800s developed the quick oats we are most familiar with in breakfast cereals. The groats are cut into small pieces before they are steamed and then rolled, making them quicker-cooking rolled oats. In many recipes, “quick” can be substituted for “old-fashioned” if texture is not an issue. True porridge aficionados would never eat oatmeal from quick oats, but they work well in cookies and breads. An apple crumble with quick oats will not be as chewy or attractive as one made with old-fashioned oats.

Instant oats are another thing altogether. They can never be used in place of old-fashioned oats. These groats have been precooked and dried before rolling thin and require only seconds to “cook,” and they are generally packaged with added salt, flavourings, and sugar. They tend to form gelatinous lumps if used as anything other than a quick breakfast food.

When a groat is not rolled, but instead sliced with a steel blade, this is, obviously, steel-cut oatmeal. Irish oatmeal is steel-cut once or twice, producing rice-sized grains also known as pin-head oatmeal. This is probably the most nutritional way to eat oats, short of the whole groat. It takes over 30’ to cook, and remains very chewy. Sometimes, it is toasted slightly to enhance the flavour. It can be eaten alone as a breakfast cereal or added to longer cooking dishes such as soups or stews, as it will withstand the cooking time. It is often used to make pilaf and is traditionally used to prepare haggis.

Scottish oatmeal seems to vary. It is sometimes included in the steel-cut category, but the package I have is actually stone ground groats, specially prepared for making porridge. Just when I thought I had it all figured out!

At the very least, I can now make that Apple crumb recipe with confidence, but I am also getting a real hankering for porridge with cinnamon, raisins, and lots of brown sugar. Is there anyone out there looking to adopt a granddaughter?



Oats have a high oil content, so buy them in small quantity, store them in a cool place, and check for any rancid smell before using.