A Beautiful Porridge

photo credit: 
MD Anderson's Focus on Health via flickr
Gorgeous gruel, magnificent mush, stunning stirabout--it's all great winter food

As I was cleaning up after dinner a few years ago, my 4-year-old daughter Josie kissed me goodnight and turned to run upstairs so her dad could put her to bed. "Oh, and Mom? Can we have that beautiful porridge again for breakfast tomorrow?" And off she went.

You may be saying to yourself, "Beautiful? Blech!" I would bet that the mush of your youth was some gluey mess that stuck to your spoon as well as your ribs. It doesn't have to be that way. Your family can love a good stirabout as much as mine does, though I can't say that your kids will eat three bowls at a go like Josie does when she's in the middle of a growth spurt.

The secret: Fresh grain, properly prepared
But first, some basic terminology. What do we mean by porridge? Porridge, which also goes by the names stirabout, mush, and the very unappetizing gruel, is any of a number of grains that have been cracked or rolled (steamed and flattened) and then cooked in water or milk until quite soft. The classic, of course, is oatmeal, about which more later.

Best Grains for Porridge

  • Cracked wheat
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Coarse-ground corn (polenta or grits)
  • Whole or cracked brown rice
  • Spelt
  • Kamut
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • ...or really any grain you like!

Just about any grain makes a good porridge. The key is to cook them longer than you would were you to serve the same grain for dinner, and in more water. What makes the porridge my family eats taste better than what you probably remember from childhood is that we don't buy it in boxes and keep it on the shelf for years. We buy fresh grain, usually from the bulk bins or in big sacks direct from the mill, and stay away from rolled cereals, like what you probably think of as oatmeal.

And what about oats?
Rolled oats are great for cookies and granola, but when it comes to a proper porridge what you want are steel-cut oats. These also go by the names pinhead, Scottish, Irish, coarse-cut or porridge oats. Unlike rolled oats, which have been steamed and then rolled flat into a flake, steel-cut oats are the raw grain (a groat when you're talking oats), very coarsely ground--chopped or cracked, really. This makes for a much chewier, firmer textured porridge with a nutty, full-bodied flavor. One bowl of steel-cut oat porridge and you'll be a believer.

In the US probably the most famous brand of steel-cut oats is McCann's Irish Oatmeal, which makes an extremely tasty porridge; it's also wildly expensive for what it is (over $6 for 28 ounces at Trader Joe's last time I bought it). Bob's Red Mill makes a good version, though I find it too finely ground for my own taste. The Bob's version cooks much faster than the McCann's, which takes a full half-hour.

Grinding your grain yourself
Best by far, and often cheaper in the long run if you factor in waste and nutrition since whole grain lasts much longer than milled grain, is to buy whole grains and grind them yourself. I have a small hand grinder. It was inexpensive--under $50. You can get attachments for your mixer or invest in a fancy electric grinder, but I find that there's something satisfying about using a hand-powered grinder. Lehmans.com has a wide variety of them in many price ranges.

Once a week or so I toast some grain in a dry frying pan on the stove just until they start to emit a nutty smell. Then, once they cool, I grind them on the coarsest setting on my grain mill. Children like to help with this sometimes, especially if you have a hand grinder. What you are going for is barely ground--cracked, really; if you end up with flour, you've gotten it too fine. (Make some bread.) Then I store the ground grain in an airtight tin (a McCann's tin as it happens) until I need it. I try not to grind more than I can use in a week.

Having said all this, I need to emphasize that you do NOT have to go to all that trouble to make a good porridge. Just buy small batches of cracked grains from a reputable source--make sure it hasn't been sitting on a shelf since the Truman Administration, or even the Clinton Administration.

Cooking it up
It's variable, but a safe rule of thumb for porridge is one part grain to four parts water. You want it wetter than you would make the same grain for dinner.

My favorite way to prepare it used to be in a very small crockpot I've had since I left home, a little one-person pot that makes exactly enough porridge for the family's breakfast as long as we're not all incredibly starving. I put the grain and the water in the pot the night before, put the cover on, plugged it in and forgot about it. Another method: Try a widemouth thermos: Put the grain and water in the thermos, cover with a tea cozy or thick kitchen towel and you should have nicely cooked porridge in the morning.

Since I discovered Nourishing Traditions, however, the way I cook my porridge has changed. It's also made it faster. The night before, I put my cracked grain in my rice cooker (without a rice cooker you could use just a plain pot) with water to cover and a pinch of salt. In the morning, I add more water, start my rice cooker (or use the stovetop method below) and in about 10-15 minutes I have rich, creamy porridge. Soaking the grain makes the nutrients in it more bio-available, as well as speeding up the cooking times. The rice cooker makes it almost as easy as toast.

Failing any of these, you can use the old reliable stovetop method. Put your water and a pinch of salt on the stove to boil in a pot with a lid. When you've got a good rolling boil, pour your grain into the water in a thin stream, stirring as you go. This will prevent lumps. Turn the water down to simmer and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. If you have a flame tamer or heat diffuser to put under the pot, so much the better; it will keep the porridge from scorching. Pop the lid on, take it off the heat and let it sit for another 5-10 minutes.

Serve it forth
Serve your porridge with--pick one--maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, molasses, jam, raisins, minced dried fruit, sliced fresh fruit--and milk, rice milk, cream or even buttermilk as they do in Scotland (not as odd as it sounds on oats, though not my favorite). Add a pat of butter, or not. Add a sprinkling of cinnamon, or not.

My favorite toppings depends on what's in the porridge. If it's all or mostly corn, I put molasses or honey, butter and just enough milk to thin it. If it's brown rice (delicious for breakfast!) all I put on it are raisins and cinnamon. With oats, it's milk, brown sugar or real maple syrup, cinnamon and a little butter.

You will find that a breakfast of porridge will fuel you for your day like no other. We eat it year round; it's cheap, it's incredibly nutritious, and beautifully delicious.

Lynn Siprelle adores steel-cut oats every morning.