steel-cut oatmeal with native blueberries

It was zero degrees (Fahrenheit) when I woke up this morning. There are over two and a half feet of snow on the ground, and more predicted in a few days. This is serious winter weather that requires serious, winter survival food: oatmeal. No, I don’t grow my own oats, so this is a concession to my locavorian ideals. But if one must make “ethical” compromises, this is one that I feel pretty good about.

the perfect oatmeal

Oatmeal has been a favorite of mine since childhood. What’s not to like? Actually, there’s a lot that I don’t like about oatmeal. It has to be done right, or you might as well be eating wallpaper paste. Granted, “right” is a very subjective word, so I’ll be clear that this post is strictly about my preferences.  When it comes to cooked oatmeal, I like it toothy. No instant or quick-cook styles for me. Just give me regular, rolled oats — if you have the thick-cut variety, all the better. And don’t overcook, please. And add lots of chopped nuts and raisins.  When I eat my oatmeal, I want to chew!

out of the rolled rut, onto steel-cut

rolled oats on left compared with steel-cut on right

Imagine my joy when I discovered steel-cut oats (Irish oatmeal/Irish porridge). The product that folks generally associate with the word “oatmeal” is an oat groat (the whole, minimally processed oat grain) that has been steamed and rolled or crushed, thus the term, “rolled oats.” Steel-cut oats are cut oat groats. They look very different from the rolled oats; they are small, hard, grains rather than thin oat flakes.

Oat groats provide many of the benefits that we’ve come to expect from a whole grain products that contain the fiber-rich bran covering and the nutrient-rich germ, or endosperm. While there is some inconsistency in nutritional finding, an eight-ounce (cooked) serving has 150 calories, four grams of fiber, four grams of protein, and two grams of unsaturated fat. Additionally, oats are an excellent source of manganese and a good source of phosphorus, thiamine, and magnesium.

Nutrition aside, when cooked, they have a heartier texture, which suits me just fine.

hunting and gathering

While rolled oats are readily available in a variety of shapes and forms (some of which are highly processed, sugar-laden, and should be avoided unless one is at risk of starvation) at your local grocery, the steel-cut variety will require just a bit of extra searching, and some advance planning when cooking. They are well worth the effort! There is one variety of steel-cut oats that I’ve been able to find in nearly every grocery, from the large chains to the local mom-and-pops. The brand name is John McCann’s and it comes it a cute, vintage-looking 28-ounce, round tin. It should be near the Quaker Oats, but it’s small and easily overlooked. It’s much pricier than the usual rolled oats — I paid nearly $8.00 for my last tin — but because it’s more dense, the yield will be greater than the can size suggests.

For those of you who have access of a natural food store (one that sells bulk grains), forget the pricey tin of steel-cut oats and buy them in bulk. The product is the same and the price is significantly less. Store in an air-tight container and it will last for a long time, even with no artificial preservatives.

plan ahead for an “instant” alternative

add oats to briskly boiling water

Cooking steel-cut oats requires a bit more planning and dedication than microwaving a package of instant oatmeal. Some recipes suggest that you soak the oats the night before to reduce some of the cooking time, others offer toasting as a shortcut, but even so, you are looking at anywhere from forty to sixty-plus minutes to cook. Because of this investment of time, I usually make a large batch, enjoy a bowl that day, then divide the rest into serving-size portions and store in the refrigerator until I’m ready for more. If covered properly, these servings should last for a week to ten days in the fridge.  Here’s the recipe that I use, but I invite you to explore the Internet. There are some pretty interesting variations.

oatmeal is ready to eat

recipe for cooked, steel-cut oats

Servings: 8

  • 8 C. boiling water
  • 2 C. steel-cut oats
  • 2 C. rough-chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1 teas. salt (optional)
  • garnish with milk, butter, buttermilk, brown sugar, raisins, fresh fruit, maple syrup to taste when serving

Bring 8 cups of water to boil in large pot (allow enough room to prevent boil overs). Add oats and salt (if desired) and stir well; reduce heat to allow for a moderate boil, stirring occasionally. Boil and stir until mixture begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to slow simmer and cover pot. Continue to cook for about 30 to 40 minutes more, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. At this point, oatmeal is ready to eat, but may seem a bit on the thin (watery side). On the first day, it doesn’t have the same thick texture that you expect when cooking rolled oats. However, as it cools, it thickens up nicely!

Remove from heat, serve with desired garnish.

When sufficiently cool, place in covered storage container for later serving.

these one-cup containers are perfect for storing the extra oatmeal

an individual serving of oatmeal, ready to pop in microwave for about a minute