Spending last winter on the cold, damp, and windy coast of northwest Ireland induced me to make a lasting relationship to breakfast, in particular breakfasts of pinhead oats, otherwise known as steel-cut or Irish oats. No longer can I imagine starting a cool-weather day without a bowl of this hearty cereal, sprinkled with toasted nuts, maybe a drizzle of honey, or sea salt.
Like all porridges, steel-cut oats are warming, a comforting pleasure to sit down with at the start of the day. They are also amazingly long-lasting; when I have an early breakfast of porridge, I find I don’t even think about lunch until one or so, and that’s with a trip to the gym in between. These hearty nubbins have taught me the value of starting the day with breakfast, especially one made with a whole food.
Hot cereals made of whole grains, whether left as hulled groats, chopped into grits, rolled into flakes, or ground into meal, have long been a feature of the American breakfast menu. They predate highly processed cold cereals by decades. Oats have been around forever, as well as porridges made from wheat and rye.
The original Roman Meal was a breakfast porridge of whole-grain wheat, rye, bran, and flaxseed. (A bread made from a daily ration of two pounds of wheat or rye supposedly sustained the legions of Hadrian.) Roman Meal, Wheatena, and Cream of Wheat all have been around since the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Cream of Wheat was created in 1893 by North Dakota millers; its Minneapolis factory just closed a few years ago, after a century of use.)
You might have grown up (or perhaps your parents did) eating fried cornmeal mush for breakfast with butter and maple syrup. If we didn’t have that — made the night before so that it would set up, just like firm polenta — we had hot cornmeal porridge flavored with vanilla and served with milk and molasses, which dribbled so slowly from the spoon that we could write our names in our cereal.
Cooked cereals are eaten all over the world and have been for centuries. In China it’s rice, in Russia buckwheat and semolina, in the British Isles wheat and oats, and here, wheat again, corn, and also oats. In many countries, especially those less developed than the United States, cereals are staple foods. That is, they’re all important. They’re the foods around which other foods — often meat — revolve.
One of the more unfortunate marks of our dubious progress as a consumer nation is that these minimally processed, simple, clearly very beneficial foods have largely been abandoned in favor of the highly refined, sugar-coated flakes, loops, “Os,” and other bits and pieces that bear the mark of industrial foods.
But there’s variety to be enjoyed in more wholesome hot cereals as well. There are many grain mixtures available, and in addition to the familiar array of oats and cornmeal, there’s no reason to ignore other grains for breakfast, such as quinoa and couscous.
Certainly one of the most pleasant ways to enjoy whole grains on a regular and frequent basis is to get into the habit of having hot cereal for breakfast. Breakfast is the meal that sees us through the day, the one that keeps us from those mid-morning sinking spells (too often shored up with sweets), particularly if it’s a hearty, wholesome meal. Breakfast is the meal we’re cautioned not to skip, and hot cereal is even more appealing on cold mornings — it literally warms you from the inside out.
Not only is breakfast not to be skipped, I might take it one step further and suggest that it’s not something to eat as you’re running out the door, in the car, or on a commuter train. It’s important to give yourself at least a few minutes to sit down and savor this first meal of the day, without gulping. Breakfast is prime time for deep nourishment, regardless of what lies ahead.
Whole grains are called groats. Usually the outer coat is removed, which makes them easier to cook, but they still take a long time (up to an hour) to soften. Even when cooked, whole grains remain chewy.
Chopped grains, which include steel-cut oats, cracked wheat, polenta, and brown-rice cereal, are collectively known as grits. They’re just what they sound like — gritty and rough — and when properly cooked, they should have a pleasingly chewy texture. Generally, grits take 20 to 35 minutes to cook on top of the stove, but there are ways to shorten that time. Finer-grained cereals, such as semolina, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and cornmeal, are the quickest-cooking cereals, and yield a smooth, pablum-like porridge.
Finally there are the rolled grains or flakes, grains that have been steamed and then rolled into flakes. Rolled oats fall into this category, of course, as do rolled barley and other grains. Some rolled grains are coarse and well-textured when cooked, others thin and correspondingly quick to cook, with a tendency to be mushy. Instant (precooked) varieties are just that — instant — and they lack firmness or bite.
Large cereal takes longer to cook, but the larger the size, the longer these good carbohydrates will stay with you. That’s why steel-cut oats “last” longer than thick rolled oats, which last longer than thinly rolled oats, which last longer than fast-cooking oats, which last longer than instant oatmeal.
The more refined and broken down the grain, the more quickly it leaves you hungry. Cream of wheat cooks in a flash, but you’ll be wondering about lunch all that sooner. Tiny grains cooked as whole grains, such as quinoa and amaranth, will stay with you a long time, too.
Long cooking times aren’t anything to be afraid of. Busy people who are fans of long-cooking cereals have come up with all kinds of methods to have them ready to eat quickly, using the microwave, slow cookers, rice cookers, double boilers, and overnight soaks to get the job done. (You can also make plenty at once to eat throughout the week.)
Even if you make, say, steel-cut oats without using any special method, you can use the 20 minutes while they’re cooking to feed the dogs, get dressed, check email, make a bag lunch, or tend to anything else that calls for your attention early in the morning. By the time your porridge is done, you’ll be ready to sit down and enjoy breakfast.
Deborah Madison is an award-winning cookbook author and writer who lives in New Mexico.
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