In my The Modern QR Code Life rant, I briefly mentioned Farm Girl in Notting Hill, London, as a hipster place we ended up in four Saturday mornings ago, in pursuit of a good bowl of porridge. It turned out that Good was an understatement: it was superbly splendidly amazing. The image below is lifted from the QR-code powered online menu at arch2order.com:
To get to the more nourishing items on the menu, one of course has to scroll past the fancy coffees, lattes, teas, and pastries. As I tried grabbing the URL of the image to include here, I couldn’t believe what the Network Inspector reported: by then, your browser has downloaded an eye-watering
52 MB of content. Fifty-Two. Mega. Bytes. What. The. Fuck? Each beautifully arranged photograph costs a sloppy
5+ MB, while the images themselves are contained within a
<div/>. This is sickening, worrying, and makes me angry at so many levels. The same is true in mobile mode—so when I was dutifully using my international mobile plan in their bar, looking at something to eat, my smartphone already gobbled up fifty-plus megabytes of crap.
Here’s the proof if you don’t believe me:
Anyway, I digress. I’m thrown off guard here. I’ll save that for another rant. What were we talking about? Oats! Right. The bowl turned out to be very nourishing and very jummy. We proceeded to talk about the preparation of a proper bowl of oats. My friend and me regularly cheat back home by using finely ground “quick” oats in combination with the microwave. I apply the needed amount of variation now and then, but after craving another Cherry Ripe Porridge a few weeks ago, it was time to properly investigate how to prepare a bowl of porridge. So here’s my attempt at a scientifically sound porridge experiment.
You’ve got your quick oats: nearly ground, thin-rolled instant ones. The microwave variant. They’re okay. But research does indicate that the more finely ground, the faster the sugar spike arrives. They’re not sifted, so the fibers present still make sure the bowl will keep your belly satisfied for longer than the more conventional and number one Belgian breakfast: slices of white bread spread with hazelnut chocolate paste.
Then there are rolled oats, which are dried, peeled, cut up, steamed and flattened. These oats require longer cooking times but can still end up as creamy deliciousness as long as you’re patient. I’ll ignore steel-cut oats and whole oats here, which need 45 minutes or more of cooking, and are almost never used to conjure up a bowl of porridge, but more often disappear in dough (or animal food).
Variations between rolled and instant oats exist depending on the brand, and it’s that sweet spot that I found the most compelling. Too large rolled oats require more than fifteen minutes of cooking—time that I do have but am not willing to take to wait for my breakfast. I have very little reserves and need to eat as soon as I get up. Also, it’s an excuse to use the microwave now and then.
After eating only oats most mornings, I started experimenting with adding additional (pseudo-)grains, such as the gluten free grain called teff. The Dutch brand Joannusmolen has an excellent Teff breakfast box that contains a combination of organically grown ground teff, maize, rice, and buckweat. The combination of 2/3rd oats and 1/3rd Teff mix resulted in the most tasteful porridge. I know that I’m probably cheating here by adding other grains, but another study revealed that by combining difficult to digest foods such as grain, the human body more easily digests them. I can’t find the source anymore so you’ll have to trust me on this.
Okay, so now we have our raw ingredient(s)—now what? Add liquid, cook, and eat. I experimented with the following liquids:
- Pure water. Not very tasty.
- Pure cow’s milk (fatty and semi-skinned). Too rich for my taste (since additional condiments are still to follow: see below), plus, it degrades your breakfast into a non-vegan one, which I do not like.
- Half water, half cow’s milk. Acceptable, but due to the vegan argument, not my preferred way.
- Various nut milks (almond, hazelnut, cashew). I love almonds so that was great, but it was a bit too sweet: you have to be very mindful and read the packaging of the milk carefully, they’re quick to add additional sugars. Nut milk is also quite expensive—up to three times cow’s milk. Cashew didn’t combine well with more heavyweights like oats.
- Rice milk. The unsweetened one was both quite good and affordable. My go-to vegan milk scores again.
As for how much liquid, that’s difficult to judge. Will you be adding teff-like other grains that soak up a lot of liquid? Are you using instant oats or rolled ones? Which brand? As a bread baker, I know that even the season in which grains are grown and harvested influences absorption capabilities, but you don’t notice it like in bread dough—luckily, there’s no kneading involved. If I say for example a ratio of three to one, you might adhere to that recipe without double checking, thus ruining your own badge.
The longer you cook, the more liquid should be involved. An additional challenge is the container, if you plan on using the microwave: quick oats are prone to overcooking and spilling. Another thing to take into account: always add a little bit of (organic sea) salt. It acts as a powerful flavor enhancer.
Once you’ve selected your oats and liquid of choice, it’s time to start cooking. Or is it? There are a few interesting possibilities here:
- Soak your oats the night before. This increases liquid absorption and results in a much more creamy (and jummy) end result! This method requires more liquid than usual.
- Soak your oats the night before, and add a little bit of sourdough starter. The bacteria will start transforming the sugars from the starch into lactic and acetic acid—in other words, flavor. Don’t add more than half a teaspoon though, or it’ll get too sour. This is very difficult to “get right” and depends on the state of your sourdough starter, the flour you feed it with, and the room or fridge temperature you’ll store the oat mixture in that night.
As for the cooking itself:
- Cook using the quick method in the microwave: here, it requires about
2m30sto transform oats into passable porridge. Again, watch out with overcooking.
- Cook on the stove in a small saucepan. Use a medium to low heat and stir frequently. It’ll take longer, but the result will be creamier.
My favorite combination—I call it the Weekend Porridge—is sourdough-soaked and then cooked on the stove. It requires remembering to prepare something before going to bed and more work the day after (including doing dishes), but it’s the best porridge I can possibly make myself. On weekdays, I do resort to the microwave, and soak when I don’t forget (not often).
Farm Girl’s Cherry Ripe Porridge obviously contains “ripe cherry” stuff. To me, porridge is an excellent way to get your daily fruit intake. Let’s roughly categorize the condiments.
Sweeteners. Depending on the type of liquid, your porridge could very well be sweet enough. But the addition of runny thyme honey or maple syrup brings your average breakfast to the next level. Don’t exaggerate, of course. In the winter, with less access to fresh fruit, or when I feel like it, I add a spoonful of jam, preferably still with pieces of fruit in it. Sure, sour cherries, why not. If you want to go all out, chuck in a piece of dark chocolate and stir to let it melt. Heavenly. I will admit to having tried adding a Belgian praline. That worked well, but I felt bad afterwards.
Fresh fruit—which are, technically, also sweeteners. To me, my porridge isn’t complete without some kind of fruit in it. My last Weekend Porridge successfully combined blueberries with half a ripe mango: delicious! I always try to buy local ingredients and grow my own red fruit, so of course it’s strawberry and raspberry season now. In the winter, I found a frozen red fruit mix to be acceptable albeit a bit more sour. Up the honey levels accordingly.
Nuts & Seeds. The “crunch” or “bite” comes from the fruit and this. Toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds, a few walnuts, whatever you have locally available to you. This is my optional condiment tough, I won’t be grumpy when I’m out. I will when there are no more blueberries.
Secret extras. The Cherry Ripe Porridge comes with a strange white thick substance in the middle that was reminiscent of sour cream but tasted like coconut. I gather it’s some kind of coconut cream that, when mixed with the rest of the porridge, gives that extra kick of sourness + creaminess. It was great, and to this day, I’m not sure how to replicate that at home. A bit of sour cream wasn’t a huge success. I don’t miss it, but it’s something to take into account.
During my experiments, I explicitly refrained from searching in cookbooks and online for recipes. Now that I know how to make my Weekend Porridge, I can take a peek. Newworld says:
The key to cooking a creamy, delicious porridge is the correct ratio of milk to water. Too much milk will make your oatmeal porridge stickier and thicker. No milk at all and your porridge will lack that creamy taste. Of course, you don’t have to use milk at all if you don’t want to.
The creaminess also involves a lot of stirring, apparently:
The important thing is that porridge should be creamy in texture (lots of stirring required), but with enough chewy bite to keep it interesting.
Oh, and did you know there’s a World Porridge Making Championship? According to an interview in the Guardian, a well-known chef uses rolled oats (which supposedly are prohibited at the championship), but does soak them in cold water for three hours, cooking them “gently” in more water for 45 minutes. Browsing a bit further, I learn that Scottish tradition dictates the use of water, but in my view, tastes have evolved. Hey, I’m that guy who tosses in a praline, remember?
That same The Guardian article does suggest to serve it with organic cream and light muscovado sugar. Nigel Slater flavors it with… a slab of butter in the middle? Yuck! But wait, Gordon Ramsay says “keep it real bro” and serves it with Greek yogurt. Yogurt. That’s sour, right?
Of course! Yogurt! That’s that white creamy substance from Farm Girl! And it can perfectly be home made from coconut cream/milk. But coconuts don’t grow on local trees and cows do, yet yogurt isn’t vegan. Choices, choices!
And thus, my porridge adventure continues…