Simple to prepare, high in fibre and protein, and proven to lower cholesterol, porridge is the trendy modern face of the classic British breakfast – it’s even (sound the bells!) low GI, which means the oats release their energy slowly, propelling you painlessly towards lunchtime. Or, at least, to the 11 a.m. tea break.
But, though it’s simple to prepare, that doesn’t mean it’s easy – porridge making is an art. Apparently it is possible to produce a decent bowl from the microwave (although I’ve never managed it), but to even approach the foothills of perfection you need a pan, and a nice low heat. Anna Louise Bachelor, AKA ‘the porridge lady’, and winner of the 2009 Golden Spurtle* award for her spotted dick variation (yes, she takes it seriously), uses a porringer, or bain-marie, to ensure the oats cook super slowly, but, heathen that I am, I haven’t found this makes a significant difference to the end result.
What does, however, are the oats themselves. Aficionados sneer at the standard rolled or jumbo oat; indeed, Sybil Kapoor pronounces it ‘tasteless and pappy’. For real flavour and texture, you need oatmeal – oats in their less processed, more nutritious form, superior in both flavour and texture. Like Sue Lawrence, the author of a number of books on Scottish food, I use a mixture of nutty, nubbly pinhead oats, and finer oatmeal for optimum texture: go down the all-pinhead route, and you’ll still be chewing on the bus to work.
Such dour traditionalists also insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but after reading in the Oxford Companion to Food that it’s a descendant of that ‘thoroughly English institution’ the medieval pottage, I’ve decided milk is a permissible decadence. All-milk versions are delicious, but a bit queasily rich first thing, so I’ve plumped for a combination of milk and water – plus the mandatory milk moat to finish, naturally.
Soaking the oats overnight does help to speed up the cooking time, but not significantly: do it if you remember, but it’s no disaster if it slips your mind. More important is toasting them beforehand, as if making the Scottish dessert cranachan, which gives the dish a gloriously nutty flavour.
I’ll allow the Scots their salt, as it brings out the flavour of the oats, but there’s no point adding it too early: it doesn’t seem to do much to toughen the oats as Nigel Slater believes, but it is easier to judge the seasoning later in the cooking process.
What you top them with is, of course, up to you: I’ve included a few suggestions below, but if you’re feeling really adventurous, there’s a recipe for kedgeree porridge online . . . I go for chopped dates and nuts on a weekday, and a good sprinkling of crunchy demerara sugar at weekends, but Guardian readers recommend golden syrup and a knob of butter, and Gordon Ramsay shows how far he’s come from the Lowlands with Greek yoghurt and honey.
- 25g pinhead oatmeal
- 25g medium oatmeal
- 100ml whole milk
- 200ml cold water
- a generous pinch of salt
- Demerara sugar, golden syrup, chopped dates, etc.
- a little more cold milk, to serve
- For the Moorish topping:
- chopped dates, dried figs or apricots
- chopped pistachios, cashews or flaked almonds
- cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg
- For the Bircher topping:
- grated apple
- natural yoghurt
- For the Elvis topping:
- peanut butter
- sliced bananas
- grilled bacon (optional)
Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat and dry toast the oats until aromatic. Put into a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak overnight, if time permits, draining them before cooking. Otherwise, use immediately as below.
Put the drained oats into a medium saucepan with the milk and 1 cup (about 200ml) of cold water and bring gradually to the boil, stirring regularly with the handle of a wooden spoon.
Turn down the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the porridge achieves the desired consistency. After about 5 minutes, add the salt.
Cover the pan and allow the porridge to sit for 5 minutes, then serve with the toppings of your choice and, of course a moat of cold milk.
A few topping suggestions:
The Bircher: Grated apple and natural yoghurt
The Moorish: Chopped dates or dried figs or apricots with roughly chopped pistachios, cashews or flaked almonds and a sprinkle of cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg.
The Elvis: Peanut butter, stirred into the hot porridge, topped with sliced banana (grilled bacon optional).
Watch the recipe below: