Did you know there was a world porridge championship? And that Bob’s Red Mill won it in 2009? Now you do.
ANCIENT GRAINS are having a resurgence, from amaranth to millet to teff.
One unexpected grain, though, has been around all along: Soothing, versatile, familiar oats. They’re as healthful as their more esoteric cousins, high in fiber and protein, credited with lowering cholesterol. They cook up into favorite dishes, from the hearty bowl of warm, chewy oat groats with toppings at The Crumpet Shop in Pike Place Market to gluten-free jam biscuits made with oat flour at Macrina Bakery. Maria Speck, author of the “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” cookbook, calls them “the one whole grain Americans love to eat.”
Unlike some of the newcomers in our grain-conscious culture, oats are readily available in a variety of configurations, from whole hulled groats to quick-cooking flakes. Despite minor nutritional trade-offs between those types (some say they’re equal, some point to variations such as glycemic index levels), there are advantages to eating them all. It’s not like wheat where there’s a stark gap between whole-wheat flour and refined white flour that has been stripped of fiber and other benefits.
With the different options for oats, “except for the oat bran, all of it is whole grains,” says Louisa Winkler, a graduate student at Washington State University. She’s specializing in oats in her Ph.D. research at the Bread Lab in Mount Vernon, the acclaimed center devoted to developing and cooking with locally grown grains.
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Locally grown oats? Well, they’re not a staple crop around Seattle now — but they used to be.
“They actually do really well here. This area had world-class yields of oats,” Winkler says. They were probably last grown in the Puget Sound region “in a serious way” in the 1950s. “They love cold, wet weather.”
While oat crops aren’t being grown or processed in the region now, “there is potential,” Winkler says. That’s what her own work focuses on: “If we want to grow oats here, what type should we be growing?”
Small-scale crops could someday be bred locally with more variations and selected benefits than giant commercial harvests. But for now, the many oat choices in markets are mainly different in the ways the grains are cut, rolled or steamed. Most variations are available in well-stocked grocery-store aisles, bulk bins, or online.
Depending on your schedule and preferences, try these types:
Oat groats: Whole hulled oat kernels, generally heated for preservation, as they’d otherwise quickly turn rancid. The sturdy groats require significant cooking time — 45 to 60 minutes — but are gaining in popularity for both breakfast and as a substitute for other grains in savory dishes.
Steel-cut oats: Groats cut into two to four pieces so they’ll cook faster. The chore will still take 20 minutes or more, but they make for a substantial, satisfying breakfast. A team from Oregon-based Bob’s Red Mill used the company’s steel-cut oats to win the “Golden Spurtle” world porridge championship in Scotland in 2009.
Old-fashioned rolled oats: Oat groats that are steamed and then rolled into flakes. The process makes them more stable, according to the nonprofit Whole Grains Council. Expect them to take 10-20 minutes to cook.
Quick-cooking rolled oats: Similar to old-fashioned oats, but rolled thinner and/or steamed longer, so that they will cook even faster, in three to five minutes. Food scientist Harold McGee writes that quick-cooking oats are around 0.4 mm thick, half the thickness of old-fashioned rolled oats. Instant oats are even thinner and often used in flavored packaged varieties that contain sugar.
Oat flour: A powdery flour of ground oats. (Make your own at home by putting old-fashioned rolled oats through a food processor.) It’s generally used as a thickener or for baking. Oat flour can’t usually be swapped directly for all-purpose flour, but Bob’s Red Mill suggests substituting it for up to 20 percent of the all-purpose flour in recipes.