Each year in Scotland's Carrbridge, porridge fiends go head-to-head to claim the title of World Porridge Making Champion. The Scots claim porridge as their own, and those competing for the “Golden Spurtle” must stick to the traditional Scottish ingredients; oatmeal, water and salt.
But in fact, porridge goes way back. Humans have been cooking grains with water for more than 10,000 years. The first grains lacked the elastic qualities of gluten required for leavened bread-making. Millet, oats and buckwheat were key ingredients in traditional porridge recipes and these days amaranth and quinoa are also popular with people who have specific dietary requirements.
Regardless of which grain you use, porridge is one of the healthiest ways to start the day. Wholegrain cereals are packed with nutritional benefits; they contain a great range of vitamins and minerals and are a good source of dietary fibre. They also have a lower glycaemic index, so they keep you full for longer than more heavily-refined grains.
Porridge can be sweet or savoury, austere or creamy. Traditionally the English enjoyed their porridge with milk, buttermilk, butter and salt. In Scotland, they preferred butter, cream or beef broo' (the skimmings of beef fat from the cooking pot). In Asia, rice porridge (congee) is still eaten with a base of rice cooked in chicken stock and topped with lean pork, pig's liver and raw egg yolks.
Fermentation guru Sandor Katz, lets his oatmeal soak and ferment for several days prior to cooking and then tops it with a mix of butter, peanut butter, miso and garlic. Most modern porridge-eaters enjoy their bowl with fruit, honey, nuts or yoghurt. Milk (dairy, almond or coconut) can be added during the pre-soaking or cooking stages for a fuller flavour and creamier texture.
While the Scots of Cambridge are sticking to oats and salt, elsewhere porridge is undergoing a revival - albeit with a superfood facelift. Quinoa, spelt and buckwheat porridge have lately become a common feature on cafe menus across Australia.
Golden porridge rules
The preparation of grains prior to cooking can make a huge difference to their taste and flavour. Pre-soaking grains shortens cooking time and improves the creamy texture of the grain. It also makes the grains easier to digest and helps the body absorb nutrients such as B vitamins and minerals.
Grains such as spelt, rye, barley and wheat should be soaked for a minimum of 12 hours, but 24-36 hours is ideal. Buckwheat and millet usually only need 12 hours; any more and they begin to sprout, or their texture becomes mushy. Buckwheat should become soft, but the kernels should remain intact when cooked.
Quinoa and polenta (corn meal) do not require soaking. A good rinse with cold running water prior to cooking will suffice.
2. Love and attention
While there are plenty of “quick” porridge mixes available in the shops these days, porridge is best when it's cooked slowly, with lots of stirring. Adding the right amount of liquid is also essential to ensure the porridge is not fibrous or gluey. A good rule is to add a little water at a time and continue to stir. A generous-sized, sturdy wooden spoon is essential.
3. Resting time
After you've made your perfect pot, put the lid back on and let it rest for five minutes before serving. This will thicken the mixture further and develop a richer, more creamy texture.
Rolled grains: spelt, rye, oats, barley and wheat
These are wholegrains that have been de-husked, steamed and rolled into flat flakes. Usually the grains have been lightly toasted, but many online companies now sell raw or gently-cooked grains, which preserve the enzymes. Rolled oats can be further cut to make Scottish Oats or steel-cut oats. These oats cook quicker compared to rolled oats, and result in a creamier porridge. However, many porridge afficionados argue that the larger-sized rolled grains are chewier, with a stronger flavour. The extra cooking time is well worth the effort.
Rolled oats are often further processed: steel-cut oats (chopped to smaller pieces), oatmeal (ground to a fine powder with bran removed) or quick oats (further shredding and heat treatment to ensure a longer shelf life). Because of their refinement and heat treatment they do not contain the same nutritional benefit as wholegrains. Oat bran is the exception; this is the fibre-rich portion of the grain, and also provides a good source of protein and carbohydrate.
Gluten-free: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, millet and corn can all be used for porridge-making.
To cook, simply rinse well in cold running water (quinoa seeds contain a bitter compound called saponins on their skin), then combine one part rinsed quinoa to two parts water in a small saucepan. Simmer with the lid off for 10-15 minutes or until the seed splits forming little curls and the water is absorbed. You may need to add additional liquid as it cooks. Season to taste.
Buckwheat groats are best soaked overnight with a dash of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. Twelve hours is ideal as the groats will just begin to sprout after this time, any longer and the groats can become mushy.
Amaranth and millet
Soak overnight with water and a squeeze of lemon juice or a few drops of apple cider vinegar. This will shorten the cooking time and create a creamier porridge.
Cornmeal (polenta) - While corn is in the grain family, it is gluten-free and has a relatively short cooking time. Long, slow cooking on the stove top or in the oven develops the corn flavour in a way that no microwave can. Polenta porridge, sold at many health food shops usually comes with a variety of dried fruit and nuts and is intended to be cooked and eaten in the same manner as regular oatmeal porridge.
Spelt, rye and cinnamon porridge with pear and prune compote
Makes 2 large bowls
2/3 cup rolled spelt
1/3 cup rolled rye
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 spoonful honey (optional)
1 cup dairy or almond milk
For pear and prune compote
2 medium-sized pears, peeled, cored and cut into quarters
1 stick cinnamon
dash of honey (optional)
Place the grains in a bowl with the apple cider vinegar and enough water to cover. Place a tea towel over the top and leave at room temperature for a minimum of 12, maximum 48 hours – the longer the better.
To make the porridge
Rinse the soaked grains briefly in cold water to remove any residue. In a medium-sized saucepan, add the grains, milk, salt and spices and 1 cup of water. Turn on to a medium heat and gently cook while stirring.
Continue to stir and add up to another cup of water as it simmers. The porridge is ready when the grains become soft (about 10-15 minutes).
Let the porridge rest, off the heat, for five minutes with the lid on. Stir through honey just before serving.
To make the fruit compote
Peel the pears, remove the core and cut into quarters. Arrange snugly in a small-medium sized saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and cover with water. Place a neatly-fitted sheet of grease-proof paper above the pears then secure the saucepan lid on top.
Place on a low heat so that the water gently simmers for fifteen or so minutes or until the pears are soft. Add the prunes and cook for another three minutes. Remove the fruit from the saucepan, then simmer the remaining liquid until it is reduced by half. Place the pears and prunes atop the porridge and drizzle with the reduced syrup. Garnish with sunflower and pumpkin seeds and add a dollop of yoghurt or cream.
Sprouted buckwheat and chia porridge with blueberry and apple compote
Makes 2 small-medium bowls
1/2 cup buckwheat groats
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp desiccated coconut
generous pinch of sea salt
1 large pear or apple, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp chia seeds
drizzle of honey
For blueberry and apple compote
1 large green apple
1 cup blueberries – fresh or frozen
dash of honey (optional)
dollop of yoghurt (optional)
Place the buckwheat in a bowl with the lemon juice and enough water to cover. Place a tea towel over the top and leave at room temperature, for 12 hours or overnight. By the morning the groats should have tiny splits and be beginning to sprout.
To make the porridge
Rinse the buckwheat under cold running water to remove any residue from the soaking process. Place it in a small saucepan and add 1 cup of water. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently and adding additional water as you go. When the buckwheat groats are ready, they should be soft and easily chewable. This usually takes 10-15 minutes. Add the coconut, salt, grated apple, cinnamon and chia seeds and continue to stir. You may need to add additional water. When the mixture is well combined, remove from heat and set aside.
To make the compote
Peel the apple and cut into bite-sized chunks combine this with the blueberries in a small saucepan and add 1/4 cup of water. Set on a low heat and stir frequently. The blueberries will thicken into a sauce and the apple should soften. Remove from heat and pour over porridge. Add a dollop of yoghurt and some honey just before serving.