Are you getting your oats?: How to make perfect porridge

Porridge used to be a pauper's food – now we can't get enough of it. But should we make it with milk or water, salt or sugar. Or snails?

What is it that David Cameron, Kate Moss and Tim Henman all have in common? Apparently, they all choose to start their day with a bowl of steaming oats. Once viewed as a rather depressing slop, muesli's austere relation, it seems these days that everyone is eating porridge for breakfast.

Last January, Quaker Oats revealed that its sales had risen an astonishing 200 per cent since January 2009, and reported the largest orders in the company's 110-year history.

More surprising was that during the summer months it wasn't just the temperature that was soaring – Quaker Oats reported a 24 per cent rise in sales this June compared to 2009. Such popularity surprised even insiders. Hayley Stringfellow, Quaker's marketing director, remarked: "Last June was the hottest ever recorded worldwide, so to see sales of hot cereal rise, despite the heat, was very unusual."

To understand why porridge has become so popular, one only need look at the health benefits a regular dose of oats offers. High in fibre and protein, oats have been proven to lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease and boost serotonin (believed, among other things, to help prevent depression). Porridge is digested slowly and helps to keep you full for longer, leading to just about every health expert proclaiming it to be the most desirable way to start your day.

Paired with the fact that a packet of oats is very cheap to buy, it makes sense that they are flying off the shelves in these tight financial times.

While most people choose to make a bowl of porridge at home themselves, it has also become a popular choice when eating out. Its current classless image means that it can be found on the menu anywhere from top hotels such as the Dorchester (served with brown sugar and cream, for £7.50) to McDonald's (with milk and jam, setting you back just 99p).

How should you make your porridge?

Water or milk? Sugar or salt? To soak the oats or not to soak? How to make your morning bowl can provoke fierce debate among porridge aficionados, who tend to be very particular about their technique. And that is before we negotiate the myriad ways to finish off the oats, with berries, honey, seeds and jam. Traditionally, the Scots balk at using anything other than oats, water and salt, so we asked three Scottish Michelin-starred chefs (right) to share how they make their morning porridge.

Weird and wonderful

As porridge is intrinsically associated with breakfast, we often shun using oats in other savoury dishes. But why should we? After all, oats are a grain, just like rice, and it makes sense for oats to provide the basis of other meal-time dishes. Everyone knows about Heston Blumenthal's snail porridge, served at the Fat Duck in Bray, but strange and exotic dishes made with porridge are becoming increasingly popular. At the World Porridge Making Championships held earlier this month in Carrbridge in the Scottish Highlands, Barry Gauld from the Kinlochewe Hotel near Achnasheen received a special mention with his West Coast Seafood Porridge (below left).

The image problem

Quite at odds with the healthy, trendy image it has today, porridge has been viewed throughout history as the dish of the poor and has a reputation for being plain and unexciting. And it is in this way that porridge has usually made appearances in culture.

The Seventies television show Porridge followed two inmates at the fictional HMP Slade. The comedy derived its name from the British slang for serving a prison sentence – "doing porridge" – so-called because porridge was once the traditional breakfast served in UK prisons.

Earlier, when writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited a First World War armaments factory at Gretna on the Scottish border, he gave the nickname of "the Devil's Porridge" to the mixture of nitroglycerine and gun-cotton, res-embling a lumpy paste, that was used to propel shells on their lethal mission.

In his poem "Oatmeal", the US poet, Galway Kinnell, describes a solitary morning alone with a bowl of porridge. He imagines that fellow poet John Keats has joined him at the table because "due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,/and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should/not be eaten alone". The poem is a fierce defence of a wild imagination faced with the mundane, in this case represented by the porridge.

But surely porridge's most prominent literary appearance is in the children's story The Story of the Three Bears. The tale had been around for years in the oral tradition before it was first published in 1837, with the intruder an ugly, elderly woman who tasted the three bowls of porridge. The pretty young Goldilocks only replaced the old woman 12 years later (and has stayed put ever since).

West Coast Seafood Porridge

Barry Gauld's recipe

Ingredients (serves three)

100g pinhead oatmeal, soaked overnight and washed
500g light white chicken stock
3 large Langoustine tails
3 large scallops (roe removed)
approx 100g flaked hot smoked salmon
2tbsp parsley butter
pinch of salt
pinch of paprika
little vegetable oil for frying

Method

1 Bring the chicken stock to the simmer and then add the drained oatmeal, stirring constantly.

2 After around 20 mins add the parsley butter. Taste and season as required.

3 Dust the scallops with the smoked paprika and salt.

4 Peel the langoustine tails.

5 Sauté the langoustine tails and scallops together on a high heat for a couple of minutes on each side.

6 Gently fold in the flaked smoked salmon.

7 Apportion the porridge into three bowls and decorate with a langoustine tail and a scallop.

How Scottish chefs make their porridge

Tom Kitchin

Chef and proprietor, The Kitchen, Edinburgh

Porridge is a staple in the Scots' diet, to stave off the winter chill. Some like it sweet, some salty; my version is a little bit of both. I like to add my own twist to give it some texture. Mix 200ml of oats and 400ml water and bring to the boil. Add half a tablespoon of salt. Let it boil for 5 minutes and take off the heat. Mix 25g sunflower seeds, 25g of walnuts and half a grated apple, and serve with cold milk.

Martin Wishart

Chef & proprietor at Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh

Take one cup of porridge oats, 2-3 cups of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring it up to simmer. I cook it for no more than 10 minutes; five is usually enough. Serve into the bowl. Then comes the important part. Pour a bit of cold milk straight from the fridge on top of the porridge and it will just float there. The porridge becomes hard and almost sets under the cold milk – it's fabulous. I'm quite a traditionalist when it comes to porridge; I don't add sugar.

Jeff Bland

Executive chef, The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh

We use 1 cup of good old-fashioned porridge oats to 4 cups of water. I wouldn't bother soaking the oats – the more things people have to do, the less inclined they are to make it. We boil the oats for about 20 minutes with a pinch of salt. 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 10-15 minutes. We offer our guests cream, milk, honey and sugar. The traditionalists will eat it just as it comes and the English, of course, will want to put jam on it.

Oat cuisine

Groats

Groats, or kernels, are made by having the oats hulled and their outer casing removed. They are particularly nutritious. However, they are hard to chew, so they are often soaked and cooked.

Steel-cut oats

These whole-grain groats havebeen cut into just two or three pieces by steel, rather than being rolled. They resemble small rice pieces, and are also known as 'pinhead oats'.

Jumbo rolled oats

These are the most popular – and the most familiar. The whole groats are steamed and rolled to make oat flakes. They have a slightly lower nutritional value than unsteamed oats, but cook in a few minutes.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal consists of oat grouts that have been ground up. The finer they are ground, the smoother th texture of the resulting porridge. For fluffier porridge, it is recommended to stir and whisk them.

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