The Best Oatmeal Is All About Technique

A spoonful of Irish oatmeal with brown sugar

Irish oatmeal cooked with milk and topped with brown sugar. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Every fall, 25 international competitors pack into the community center in Carrbridge, a small town nestled up in the Scottish Highlands, to go head-to-head in a grueling competition that requires daily training, which in many cases they've undertaken for much of their lives. The rules are strict, their tools spartan, and the objective grandiose yet humble—be named World Porridge Champion. This must be accomplished with nothing more than oats, water, and salt.

Like I said, it's grueling.

It's hard to imagine how it's possible to distinguish oneself with so few elements in play. Assuming the competitors aren't such bad cooks that they present a bowl as thin as soup or as thick as cement, how much difference can there be from one entry to the next? I'm so perplexed by this that I send an email to the World Porridge Championship. Soon I'm on the phone with one of their judges, the chef Lydie Bocquillon, and I receive a separate email from Martyn O’Reilly, the resident master of ceremonies. (He is, at the time, en route to Munich to advise its local porridge championship and then off to Warsaw to host a Burns Supper; the life of a porridge MC is much more interesting than I guessed).

"We end up tasting probably 40 odd bowls of traditional porridge," Bocquillon tells me, "And I can honestly say they are very different from one another." Competitors are exacting, she says. They often bring their own water, even internationally, and select their salt with equal care. Bocquillon, who's originally from France, says that as much as she loves sel de Guérande from her native land, it's too harsh for oatmeal. "With porridge you need something a bit more subtle. You don’t put a lot in when you cook the oatmeal, just a pinch, and then flake a little on top."

The oats are, of course, paramount. They must be ground in steel or stone mills to make a pinhead or finer particle size; neither rolled nor instant oats, which are parcooked and processed for quick convenience, are eligible.

Then there are the things people do that sound near superstitious. The stirring utensil is chosen with care, and even the speed, frequency, and direction of stirring can be chosen deliberately. Some claim the porridge must be stirred with the right hand only in a clockwise direction, which I think we can dismiss right away as nonsense.

As for O'Reilly, he tells me he's eaten the oatmeal made by all the finalists every year since 2006, and he's concluded "the winners have all stirred their porridge for the full half hour to make it very smooth and have boiled it down to get a smooth mixture, not too thick to stick to the spoon but enough to be able to pour it out rather than spoon it out."

They have me intrigued. I've cooked oatmeal on and off for much of my life, and I've always been pleased with the results, but they've given it more consideration than I thought possible. It was time to do my own tests and unlock whatever secrets I could to find the best techniques for the finest bowl of morning oats.

Types of Oats for Oatmeal

Many of the terms used for oatmeal are synonymous—pinhead oats, steel-cut oats, and Irish oats all describe very coarsely cracked groats (the word for hulled oats).

Oatmeal itself can be a confusing word. In the United States, it often refers to the cooked porridge, whereas in the United Kingdom, it describes a meal (i.e., flour) made from oats; what you cook that oatmeal into is porridge. Oatmeal in the flour sense can be ground coarse, medium, or fine, traditionally on milling stones, which is why you'll sometimes see it described as "stone-ground."

Beyond that are rolled oats, which have been softened and parcooked by steam and then rolled flat to decrease their thickness and increase their surface area, all of which speeds cooking. Quick-cooking oats and instant oats are simply variations on the rolled-oats process, but they're made even thinner for an even shorter cooking time. (You can read more about oats in our whole grain guide.)

I have no objection to those products, but I didn't test them for this article. They're convenience foods that cook up quickly and easily and require less explanation than the long-cooking steel-cut/pinhead oats that I'm focusing on here. What I want is a bowl of nutty oats that retain a slightly chewy texture without seeming undercooked; the texture should be neither dry and stiff nor overly wet and soupy. Anything that speeds up the process without undermining the flavor and texture is a plus.

Spurtles, Spons, Porringers, and Pots: The Tools of the Trade

A Scottish spurtle, used for stirring oatmeal

A spurtle.

The winner of the World Porridge Championship each year wins the Golden Spurtle, a trophy of the cooking implement—really it's just a glorified stick—the Scottish have used for centuries to stir their oats as they cook. There's plenty of lore around the spurtle. Some claim that because it lacks a spoon's broad bowl, it agitates the porridge less during cooking and yields a better texture.

I find such claims hard to believe, but I bought one anyway just to try it out. It turns out I'm able to make porridge just as well with a wooden spoon as with the spurtle, so while I enjoyed the novelty of using one, and of saying the silly name as often as I could to everyone I could, you don't need it.

I do, however, enjoy being a pedant about spurtles. If you're going to own one, you might as well own the right one. Many websites today confuse the spatula-like Couthie spurtle, which is used for things like flipping oatcakes, with the dowel-like spurtle, which is the one meant for porridge. It'd be terribly embarrassing to go to the trouble of procuring a spurtle only to end up ignorantly stirring your morning porridge with an oatcake flipper, wouldn't it?

Beyond spurtles are some hybrid implements like the spon, which is a spoon-spurtle mashup made by a former World Porridge champion. Bocquillon tells me it's delightful for making porridge, and I believe her, but I still won't get one. I can barely use a spurtle with a straight face, its storied Scottish history the only thing keeping me from using it as kindling, but a spon? That is too absurd to consider. A wooden spoon will suffice.

Oh, but there's more. Ever hear of a porringer? It's a real thing, I swear, and it's nothing more than a fancy-sounding double-boiler, except...primarily for porridge. There is nothing wrong with using a double boiler for cooking a thick substance like oatmeal, since it reduces the chances of it accidentally sticking and scorching, especially if you're busy in the kitchen and can't keep your eye fully on the oats, but you otherwise don't need one. Even at the championship, an event so porridge-obsessed no one bats an eye at a spurtle or a spon, it's generally agreed that making a porringer a regular fixture of one's oatmeal method is, as Bocquillon put it, "a bit pompous."

More helpful than anything, in my opinion, is to use a sloped-sided pot, like the three-quart saucier we frequently recommend as a kitchen essential. The curved corners at the bottom of the pot are easy to scrape clean with a spoon, reducing the chances the oatmeal scorches where your spoon can't reach.

The More You Stir...

Stirring a pot of steel-cut oats

One of my first tests was to find out just how important stirring, or not stirring, is. I made several batches of steel-cut oats, stirring some rapidly and constantly, some slowly and constantly, and some only as little as needed to prevent sticking. I used spoons and my spurtle.

Stirring, I found, does matter. The more and the faster I stirred the oatmeal, the thicker and gluier it became. The reason is clear: The more the oats are agitated in the pot, the more starch is knocked free from the grain and into the surrounding liquid, thickening it. It's not so much that a spurtle makes a noticeable difference over a wooden spoon, but it's certainly enough to be mindful not to overwork the mixture.

Tasters' opinions differed on which they liked most. I enjoyed the least starchy version, which had what I can only describe as a juicy texture, with distinct oat grains suspended in a creamy sauce, not unlike a good risotto. Others liked the middle version, stirred frequently but slowly; it was more thick but still not stodgy. No one pointed to the rapidly and constantly stirred oatmeal as a favorite; as Golidlocks might have said, that oatmeal was just too thick.

Rinsing steel-cut oats

I also tested a couple batches of oats that I rinsed before cooking, to wash off excess starch, but I didn't see a big difference between those and the ones that went straight into the pot without rinsing.

Toasted Oats

Toasting the oats before cooking them is a step some people like to do, so I compared oatmeal made from dry-toasted oats, butter-toasted oats, and untoasted oats. Many higher-quality steel-cut oats on the market come already lightly toasted, but the effect is subtle. Toasting the oats more deeply can augment their flavor. It's quite good.

Nearly everyone who tasted these batches blind preferred the dry-toasted oats, which I'd cooked in a dry pan, tossing frequently, until they smelled very fragrant. The ones toasted in butter ended up with what several tasters described as a popcorn flavor, which they all agreed was something that would become overwhelming after a spoonful or two.

I was curious just how much toasting might deactivate the starches and impact thickening, which is something we know happens with both risotto and roux, but my tests didn't yield any obvious results. Toasting may well lessen starch's thickening power but not so much that I was able to notice it.

Toast for flavor, if you want, but don't rely on it to alter the oatmeal's texture.

Water Ratios and the Sequence of Events

Oatmeal recipes suggest anywhere from two to four parts liquid per one part steel-cut oats. I played with the ratios and found that many can work. It depends both on the oats themselves, since different products can vary in grind size, and one's personal preference for the texture of the oats; a more al dente bite requires less liquid.

I eventually settled on a 3:1 ratio of liquid to oats for most applications, but with the understanding that you may need to add an additional dose of liquid if the oatmeal hits its target thickness before the oats have softened enough.

I found similar flexibility with the sequence of events. I cooked some batches by sprinkling the oats into boiling water, as many package directions say to do, and some by combining the oats with cold liquid and then bringing the mixture up to a simmer. I found no difference between the hot start and cold start, which tracks with my polenta tests from a few years ago.

Overnight Oats Success

A spoonful of Scottish oatmeal with butter

One of the main downsides of using steel-cut oats is that they take longer to cook than rolled and instant oats—upward of 20 minutes, which is not something we're always in the mood to do, or even have the time to do, first thing in the morning.

The common workaround is to soak the oats overnight to fully hydrate them. All that's left in the morning is to heat them up long enough to gelatinize the starch and thicken the porridge up, which happens in a matter of minutes.

The question was which of the most popular overnight methods was best. I tried three: an overnight soak followed by cooking in the soaking water; an overnight soak with the soaking water drained, the grains rinsed, and then cooked in fresh water; and the grains and water combined in a pot, brought to a boil, covered, and then left to sit overnight and be reheated in the morning.

I tried this with a couple different pinhead oat products, including some Scottish oats from an old water mill and the oats from Bob's Red Mill (Bob, it's worth mentioning, is a two-time World Porridge Championship winner).

To my surprise, I had very different results with each type. Almost all the overnight Scottish oats verged on inedible, with an unpleasant raw-dough flavor that refused to go away even with a lengthy simmer. The only sample that turned out well was the one for which I'd drained the soaking water, rinsed the grains, and then cooked them in fresh water. I figured the problem was that overnight soaking released too much starch into the water, and its flavor was too strong to cook off.

But when I repeated the test with Bob's oats, the results shifted. The best oats from that batch were the ones that were soaked and then cooked in their soaking liquid. The ones I drained and rinsed took forever to thicken sufficiently, nearing doneness at about the same rate as a pot of oats cooked directly from dry.

My best guess as to why the brands diverged in this particular series of tests may have to do with how the oats were processed. The Scottish oats were ground on stones and had a slightly more powdery quality; this extra starch may have been too much for a basic overnight soak without draining and changing the soaking water first. The Bob's Red Mill steel-cut oats, on the other hand, are more cleanly cut and less powdery, making the draining and rinsing steps unnecessary.

You may have to test your own oats to figure out which method is best based on them. The good news is there's a method that works either way, and it produces great results that make the overnight trick worth using.

The oats that I brought to a boil the night before and then left covered, meanwhile, weren't great regardless of brand. The results seemed weirdly overcooked in texture, yet undercooked in flavor. They also took longer to reheat because of how thick they'd grown overnight, slowing down much of the time-savings; thinning with water to speed reheating just meant having to cook the porridge longer to get it back to a good texture. It's not a method I'd recommend.

In general, compared to unsoaked oats, overnight oats are more tender with a pleasant pop of each grain. I like the chew of unsoaked grains, so I'll still skip the overnight soak sometimes too.

Milk Versus Water and Toppings to Consider

Irish oatmeal with brown sugar

Some may be wondering why the cooking liquid itself is coming so far down in this article. It has, arguably, even more dramatic results than most of the other details I've mentioned. It's for two reasons: First, because most people already know whether they fall into the water or milk camp, and they don't need me to tell them what the differences are (in case you don't, the difference is creamy or ultracreamy). And second, because water is what the Scots traditionally used to cook the oats (if being decadent, cream or butter can go on top of a serving bowl but generally not in the porridge pot), and the Scots know their oatmeal.

That, said, using milk is not unheard of, especially not today when porridge is so often made ultrarich and sweetened to the point of being dessert—delicious, but not something that keeps it healthy as a daily repast. The Irish seem to have found a good middle ground, using water or milk (or some combination) to cook the oats and then lightly sprinkling some brown sugar on top.

For toppings, sweet things come to mind, whether syrups or jams, raw or poached fruits. Nuts and nut butters make both good toppings and mix-ins, and a dollop of thick sour cream or yogurt can even work.

Just as good but far less often considered in the United States, where oatmeal is routinely drowned in sugar, is to take a more savory approach. Mixing a raw egg in at the end so that it gently cooks in the oatmeal's residual heat is delicious, as are additions like sautéed mushrooms, hearty greens, and grated cheese. Think shrimp and grits but with oats.

In the end, the recipes I'm giving here are the most basic—Scottish-style oats cooked with water and a pinch of salt and topped with some butter or cream if you want, along with a slightly more decadent Irish-style bowl of oats cooked with some milk and topped with brown sugar. Use them as jumping-off points, then go wild. Who knows, maybe one day you'll be named the world's best porridge-maker. If not that, we can all at least aspire to the title at home.

A bowl of Scottish oatmeal with butter