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With the grain: oats

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: oats

Oats have been a staple crop in Britain for hundreds of years although until relatively recently, it was only the Celts (particularly the Scots) who celebrated eating them. In England, they were historically largely looked upon as fodder for livestock. The oat grain (Avena sativa) thrives in cold, damp climates, and so is well suited to the northern British shores, unlike the sun-loving wheat and barley crops brought in by the Romans that largely superseded the oat further south.

Regardless of Celtic ancestry or location, the one oat dish that every Brit will surely have eaten, or even balked at, must be porridge. I remember labouring over Mrs Prestidge’s lukewarm bowls of semi-solidified gloop at school, the slimy prune on the top making it all the worse. I’m still scarred and not much of a fan. I’m sure that porridge enthusiasts would say that my dreaded breakfast had not been properly prepared; a purist’s porridge is made with nothing but oatmeal, salt and water, and stirred with a spurtle (a small wooden stick) rather than spoon.

To be honest, the ‘authentic’ version sounds possibly worse to me—at least Mrs P’s had a little milk and sugar. So, I doubt that I will ever become a porridge fan, but many of you probably love it and I’m rather envious of you; there’s no denying the fact that a portion of oats is a great way to kick-off the day.

Bran, germ and all
Oats are whole grains. Once the hull has been removed, we consume the entire kernel—bran, germ and all. Oats contain more soluble fibre than any other grain, including one type, beta-glucan, that has been medically proven to lower bad cholesterol, so a bonus for our cardiovascular health. The high protein and fibre levels of oats also mean that you will feel satiated, full and energised for many hours, reducing the urge to visit the biscuit tin.

Oats are cited as one of the magic ingredients that reduce blood sugar and insulin levels, so they can be helpful in controlling diabetes, too. The list goes on, with an impressive line-up of nutrients: iron, manganese, zinc, vitamin E, folate, B vitamins, phosphorus and selenium. Oats are even reputed to boost male libido, hence sayings such as ‘getting your oats’ or ‘sowing your wild oats’.

Thankfully for some of us, there are many ways to eat oats other than porridge. If the creamy texture isn’t your thing, then a bowl of good muesli just might be. I like to make up my own (ratio: four parts rolled grain, one part dried fruit, one part nuts and seeds). I surprised myself by loving bircher muesli too (basically oats and other grains soaked overnight in the fridge)—here’s a recipe. And, if toast is your usual in the morning, you could always wash it down with a glass of oat milk.

Fabulous biscuits
Oat flour makes fabulous biscuits and the plethora of oat cake varieties available in the shops nowadays shows that I’m not alone in considering them among the best biscuits for cheese. Rather confusingly, in Staffordshire an oatcake is more like a pancake, a combination of wheat and oat flour leavened with a little yeast. These are certainly worth giving a try with the traditional bacon and egg, or any other way that takes your fancy (you can pick them up at Neil’s Yard Dairy).

Cooked oat groats (the whole kernels) make great bases for salads or thrown into stews, just as you might use wheat berries or pot barley. And then, of course, oats can be added to cakes and bakes, though sadly once you’ve piled in a load of butter and sugar you may have negated some of their miraculous health-giving properties.

Know your oats
—Groats: whole kernels with just the husk removed (bran and germ intact).

—Steel cut/pin head oats: oat groats chopped into three or four pieces—the choice of porridge purists.

—Rolled oats: steamed and then rolled kernels—these can be whole, as in jumbo oats, or ‘quick oats’ when they have been finely cut before rolling. Just to confuse matters, there are non-steamed varieties too, but these are harder to come by as they are more perishable.

—Oat flour: ground whole oats.

—Oat bran: the outer husk of the oat grain.

Read Jenny’s ginger and pumpkin seed flapjacks recipe