Cold mornings warrant hearty breakfasts. Oatmeal falls in this category. Yet at the hands of remiss cooks, it has earned the distinction of being underseasoned, overprocessed, sludgy or scalded. This is unfortunate.
While it may be homely, oatmeal can be divine.
My favorite rendition was introduced to me by Jeremy Hoffman, chef de cuisine at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. Each winter morning when servers report to work, Mr. Hoffman readies a staff meal: A giant bowl of oatmeal, sweetened with brown sugar, honey and raisins. In addition to water, the oats are rehydrated and enriched with equal parts whole milk and heavy cream.
Each server scoops a helping, often adding a pat of Irish butter before sitting down to eat.
Oatmeal may not be very sexy, but it incites passion among those who love it. For one, there's debate on what makes for the most delicious rendition: steel-cut or rolled oats. Also up for discussion is how it's best prepared.
As for the toppings, there are ingredients such as Craisins and chocolate chips that simply do not belong in oatmeal, as well as a thousand combinations of nuts and sweets that can transform it into the breakfast equivalent of a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
Author and columnist Mark Bittman took fast-food versions to task last year, as places such as Starbucks and McDonald's added artificial ingredients and a staggering amount of sugar and calories.
"Oats are easy to grow in almost any non-extreme climate and, minimally processed, they're profoundly nourishing, inexpensive and ridiculously easy to cook," he wrote in "How to make oatmeal ... wrong" on The New York Times' Opinionator blog.
A serving of McDonald's oatmeal costs $2 while Starbucks charges around $3. Bluebird Kitchen Downtown offers a purist version of steel-cut oats with fruit. A small serving costs $3.75, a large one is $5.
Steel-cut versus rolled oats
Many swear by the nutritional edge steel-cut oats have over rolled oats. Steel-cut oats have been minimally processed, while rolled oats have been steamed and toasted. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook because they absorb water more slowly.
A local grain farmer likes rolled oats for their subtle sweetness. So do I.
"I don't know how steel-cut oats taste because I don't eat them," said Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farms in Avella. "Steel-cut oats are broken in dehulling and are then cut into even pieces," he said. "You're paying a premium for a by-product."
For the past three seasons, Mr. Tudor has been growing hull-less oats on three acres, each of which yield 40 to 100 bushels. On premise, he rolls his own.
This will be the first season he will sell grains to the public. Beginning in April, Mr. Tudor will offer rolled oats as well as spelt, rye and open-pollinated corn through Penn Corner Farm Alliance.
Whether rolled or steel-cut, artisan grains have a three- to six- month shelf life while commercial-brand rolled oats last for years because they'd been steamed so long it neutralizes a nutritional enzyme.
To toast or not to toast
In "How to make perfect porridge" in The Guardian, Sybil Kapoor wrote that her childhood memory of oatmeal's bland scalded-milk flavor and gluey texture "still makes me shiver."
To avoid this fate, some say that equal parts water and milk must be used: Water to rehydrate and milk for creaminess.
Mr. Tudor makes a nutritious, albeit abstemious, version of oatmeal with one part oat groats, which are unprocessed hulled whole grains, two parts rolled oats and three parts boiling water. Before serving, he adds a touch of sugar and warm milk from his neighbor, Manchester Farms .
Some home cooks swear by toasting rolled oats in butter before steeping them in hot water and milk.
And then there's this: "Never forget the salt," said a colleague of mine. I likely would not because salt is my requisite when cooking just about anything.
Cavan Patterson of Wild Purveyors in Lawrenceville is a dissident in his oatmeal methodology. He forms a ridge of Frankferd Farms oats in a mixing bowl and pours boiling water over it.
"You don't want to cook the oats or they lose nutritional value," said Mr. Patterson. "You just want them to rehydrate."
Once water is absorbed, he adds a half cup of plain yogurt and sweetens with honey. "It's a really substantial breakfast."
This varies from the method at Red Oak Cafe in Oakland, which serves the "OTY," an oatmeal drink concocted by chef Dave Gancy. First oat flour, steel-cut and rolled oats steep in green or black tea. Once it cools, Mr. Gancy adds Greek or plain organic yogurt or a coconut-milk kefir. OTY stands for the three ingredients in the drink.
Mr. Bittman also suggests a drinkable version.
"If you don't want to bother with the stove at all, you can put some rolled oats in a glass or bowl along with a teeny pinch of salt, sugar or maple syrup or honey, maybe some dried fruit. Add milk and let stand for a minute (or 10). Eat. Eat while you're walking around getting dressed. And then talk to me about convenience."
Mr. Patterson keeps his head by sticking with honey to balance the tartness of yogurt. He also adds walnuts for crunch.
Over at Bluebird Kitchen, chef Steven Thompson allows for sliced almonds, fruit, brown sugar and maple syrup on steel-cut oats simmered in coconut milk.
Talk about unorthodox: Daft Brits such as Ms. Kapoor finish oatmeal with organic cream, brown sugar and this: a glass of 16-year-old single-malt whiskey. "Heaven," she said.
Minus brown sugar, I'll top oatmeal with a dash of Sailor Jerry rum.
Adding booze is best, perhaps, for weekend mornings at home.
JEREMY HOFFMAN'S STAFF OATMEAL
Here's enough oatmeal for a group. You could make a quarter of each amount to serve, say, 2 people. For extra decadence, add a pat of Irish butter to each serving.
1 quart water
1 quart oatmeal
1 quart whole milk
1 quart heavy cream
2 tablespoons salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup honey
2 cups raisins
Over low heat, add water to oatmeal and allow it to absorb. Repeat with whole milk, then heavy cream. Add salt and cook to desired consistency. Finish with brown sugar and honey, then serve. Garnish each serving with raisins.
Serves 4 to 8.
-- Jeremy Hoffman
SOW YOUR WILD OATS
Wild Purveyors proprietor Cavan Patterson assembles his oatmeal in a mixing bowl so as to rehydrate oats rather than simmer on the stove. This, he says, ensures oats retain nutrients.
2 cups water
1 cup Frankferd Farms rolled oats
Salt to taste
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
2 tablespoons crushed walnuts
1 tablespoon maple syrup or brown sugar (if desired)
Bring water to a boil. In a small mixing bowl, form a linear mound or "ridge" of oatmeal. Pour hot water over oatmeal to top of ridge and allow oats to absorb water.
Once this occurs, salt to taste, then fold yogurt into the mixture. Add honey to taste.
Dollop a serving in a bowl and garnish with walnuts and brown sugar or maple syrup, if you wish.
Makes 1 to 2 servings.
-- Cavan Patterson
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 and on Twitter: @melissamccart.