Monday, December 28, 2009

Interesting Food - Groats (aka "Scottish Oats" aka "Steel-Cut Oats"

As Americans, we're fond of convenience food and that means that most of us grew-up eating the kind of oatmeal that comes out of a package. How can you argue with something where you just add hot water and stir and end-up with a (mostly) nutritious meal? Then again, the packets are quite small (as an adult, I can easily eat two), relatively expensive compared to plain oats, and as with many convenience versions of foods, they're much less healthy than the original product, having much of their benefits stripped away by processing and then masked by sugar, artificial flavors, and thickeners.

Don't get me wrong. I've tried plain "Old Fashioned" rolled oats--you know, the kind in the blue can with the dude in a certain black hat on the logo. I've even tried oats from Bob's Red Mill, thinking that maybe if they came from a smaller, higher-quality manufacturer, they'd taste better. Nonetheless, I could do nothing to adjust my taste buds to the funky texture, odd chew, and blah, almost metallic taste of plain old oats. No amount of cinnamon, sugar, honey, maple syrup, spices, or dried fruit could mask what my personal taste buds just couldn't learn to appreciate.

Ever since watching an episode of Good Eats focusing on oatmeal, I've been intrigued by a different type of oats known as "Steel-Cut" oats. They're also known as "Groats" or "Scottish Oats." Groats start off the same as any other oat but are cut with steel blades or burrs (as the name suggests) instead of being hulled and rolled into that familiar flat shape. Because they're less processed and contain more of the original goodness like bran, they retain many more nutrients, flavor, and have a heartier texture when cooked. Think of them like the brown rice of the oat world.

As luck would have it, I happened upon some Groats in the bulk foods aisle of Whole Foods the other day, which allowed me to try a small portion without breaking the bank on an entire package. After consulting Mr. Brown's recipes and a few found via Google, I chose a preparation method and jumped in head-first. After about 30 minutes (it takes that long for a groat to soak in water, much like a grit for all you Cousin Vinnie fans), I had myself a steaming-hot bowl of oatmeal. Adding a generous spoonful of brown sugar and stirring, I dug-in. And wow! What a difference.

If you've ever had rice pudding or a loose risotto, it's something like that except brown and it tastes more wholesome (as it should). The individual grains have a not so subtle chew like al dente barley that's different but pleasant. The generous amount of starch given-up by the oat granules as they cook create a velvety and not unpleasantly sticky sauce that you can thin-out or leave thick as you please. I think I've finally found an oat product I can live with.

Unfortunately, because of the size of the granules, groats do take at least 30 minutes to cook. There's just no way around it (unless I can find a pressure cooker recipe). Good 'ole AB has a recipe involving an overnight soak in the slow cooker, but that seems like an awful lot of work to me for a single serving (that, and my slow cooker has a 5-quart crock, which is a bit overkill).

Luckily, I discovered that they keep well in the fridge and reheat in the microwave even better than you'd expect. I've found that if I make a batch in the evening and package it into serving-sized containers, I can add a spoonful of brown sugar in the morning to freshen it up, pop it into my lunch bag, and heat it up at work to munch on while digging through my morning email.

I've also seen recipes where it's steamed like rice and used to make a pilaf. I'd like to give that a try soon.

Be sure to give it a try when you have a chance. Here are a few resources:
  • Alton Brown's Recipe for Steel-Cut Oatmeal - I substituted regular milk for the buttermilk and it comes out just fine. If you want that tangy flavor, try a couple spoonfuls of yogurt stirred-in after cooking instead of the remaining milk.
  • Alton Brown's Recipe for Overnight Oatmeal
  • Bob's Red Mill - They also carry organic.
  • McCann's Irish Oats - Available at most grocers, McCann's makes a great product and aside from Bob's is one of the few to be able to guarantee their oats are Gluten Free (for our Celiac friends).
  • Whole Foods - Aside from carrying groats in the bulk foods aisle (by the pound), they also carry major brands including Bob's, McCann's, and others.
Credit Where Credit is Due:
I didn't happen to snap any of my own photos of the cooking and eating process. As such, the photos above are compliments of your friendly neighborhood Google Image search. My sincere apologies and thanks to the original owners for accepting my loose interpretation of "fair use."

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