To make "rolled oats," millers first grind the husks off the grain. The oats are then sliced, steamed to soften them and then finally, rolled flat. The highly technical term "smushed" keeps coming to mind: rolled oats are flat, soft, round, something like the seedpods of autumn elm trees without the wings. The process extends shelf life and speeds cooking time, but unfortunately, it can also damage flavor and texture. "Quick oats" are sliced and pressed even more thinly, making it possible to produce porridge in a matter of minutes.
Traditional stone grinding, as is done at Walton's Mill, actually cuts the oats instead of flattening them. What comes out looks more like coarse, uncooked cornmeal. The oats' natural oils are left in, so the meal is darker in color in both its raw and cooked states. The most important difference is in the way it tastes. Porridge made from rolled oats is, in my experience, generally bland, and softer in texture. Quick oat porridge is even less appealing. At best they seem to be vehicles to convey butter and sugar while providing a filling breakfast, but as far as actual flavor goes there's not much there.
There is, of course, no one "right" way to make porridge--like paella, polenta and pasta, pretty much every oatmeal fan has his or her own preferred method. Commercial rolled oats are generally cooked at three to one.
At Macroom, the Creedons recommend a ratio of four parts water to one part meal, then suggest adding more liquid if needed. (That means that the yield per pound of meal is significantly higher with the Macroom than it would be with other oatmeal.) Bring the water to a boil, then slowly add the oatmeal, mixing constantly to avoid lumps. Return the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Add a bit of salt to taste, then serve with soft brown sugar on top and some cold milk on the side.
In Ireland, this method is known as making porridge "on water." This is certainly the most popular method in Ireland. Still, a well-spoken minority advocates making porridge "on milk." Dublin food writer Maureen Tatlow told me once that using milk instead of water, or at the least, half of each, was the way to go. Having tried both, at home I generally go with the richer texture you get from cooking on milk, but both are certainly good.
The next question is, how do you serve a proper porridge?
The standard Irish method calls for cream or milk, and what the Irish call "soft brown sugar". The sugar is basically traditionally-made brown sugar, the sort in which the molasses is left in rather than the commercial alternatives where it's all removed then a bit of molasses is added back to give a bit of color. We know it as Muscovado.
Some people pour the cream--or milk--straight onto the bowl of oatmeal. Others like the liquid on the side; they sprinkle on the sugar, fill their spoon with hot oatmeal, then dip it into a bowl of cold cream or milk. If you're after something really special, I'd have to say go with the cream; its richness triangles perfectly with the toastiness of the Macroom oatmeal and the sweetness of the sugar. Not being a sweets eater, I'm actually a little more inclined to the Scottish way of serving oatmeal, which seems to be limited to cream or milk and a little salt. Don't skimp on the quality of the dairy product. Cream or milk from Calder Dairy (which we use for all our coffee drinks and for the cow's milk cheeses and the gelato we make at the Creamery) definitely makes a big difference!
One challenge with traditional oatmeal like Macroom is that it takes a bit longer to prepare in the morning than you may have time for. The Creedons deal with this by starting the process the previous evening. They bring the water to a boil, add the meal, bring it back to a boil then turn it off and let it sit on the stove covered overnight. Then in the morning, they just heat it up and eat it.
Savory Oatmeal Suppers
A few years back I had a conversation with author and food historian William Rubel that altered my oatmeal outlook, and the way I eat it, too, forever. William pointed out something that, having heard it, seems kind of obvious, but which up until he said it, I'd never thought about. He said that although our current approach to oatmeal is that it's only a breakfast food to be served with sweet accompaniments like honey, sugar or raisins, it must have, at one time, also been a base for savory toppings. Because like other comparable dishes--think polenta, grits, or rice porridge--oatmeal was the main source of sustenance for 19th century poor people in Britain. Which means it was eaten at all times of the day, and that it would have been eaten with all sorts of accompaniments, savory and sweet.
Instead of thinking of it only as morning fare, I've started to see it as a savory dinner course. Served with butter, grated farmhouse cheddar, chopped winter greens (like Swiss chard), a bit of sea salt and freshly ground pepper, it's really pretty darned good stuff. To make this simple dish, just follow the recipe on the can, adding the chopped greens into the oatmeal while it's cooking. When it's done, top with melted butter and some grated cheddar (a good one of course). Add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy for dinner.
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