A Beautiful Porridge

Photo credit: 
MD Anderson's Focus on Health via flickr
Gorgeous gruel, magnificent mush, stunning stirabout--it's all great winter food

[Note: See the comments for how my porridge-making techniques have changed in the four years since I originally wrote this.--L.]

As I was cleaning up after dinner a few years ago, my 4-year-old daughter Josie kissed me goodnight and turned to run upstairs so her dad could put her to bed. "Oh, and Mom? Can we have that beautiful porridge again for breakfast tomorrow?" And off she went.

You may be saying to yourself, "Beautiful? Blech!" I would bet that the mush of your youth was some gluey mess that stuck to your spoon as well as your ribs. It doesn't have to be that way. Your family can love a good stirabout as much as mine does, though I can't say that your kids will eat three bowls at a go like Josie does when she's in the middle of a growth spurt.

The secret: Fresh grain, properly prepared
But first, some basic terminology. What do we mean by porridge? Porridge, which also goes by the names stirabout, mush, and the very unappetizing gruel, is any of a number of grains that have been cracked or rolled (steamed and flattened) and then cooked in water or milk until quite soft. The classic, of course, is oatmeal, about which more later.

Best Grains for Porridge

  • Cracked wheat
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Coarse-ground corn (polenta or grits)
  • Whole or cracked brown rice
  • Spelt
  • Kamut
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • ...or really any grain you like!

Just about any grain makes a good porridge. The key is to cook them longer than you would were you to serve the same grain for dinner, and in more water. What makes the porridge my family eats taste better than what you probably remember from childhood is that we don't buy it in boxes and keep it on the shelf for years. We buy fresh grain, usually from the bulk bins or in big sacks direct from the mill, and stay away from rolled cereals, like what you probably think of as oatmeal.

And what about oats?
Rolled oats are great for cookies and granola, but when it comes to a proper porridge what you want are steel-cut oats. These also go by the names pinhead, Scottish, Irish, coarse-cut or porridge oats. Unlike rolled oats, which have been steamed and then rolled flat into a flake, steel-cut oats are the raw grain (a groat when you're talking oats), very coarsely ground--chopped or cracked, really. This makes for a much chewier, firmer textured porridge with a nutty, full-bodied flavor. One bowl of steel-cut oat porridge and you'll be a believer.

In the US probably the most famous brand of steel-cut oats is McCann's Irish Oatmeal, which makes an extremely tasty porridge; it's also wildly expensive for what it is (over $6 for 28 ounces at Trader Joe's last time I bought it). Bob's Red Mill makes a good version, though I find it too finely ground for my own taste. The Bob's version cooks much faster than the McCann's, which takes a full half-hour.

Grinding your grain yourself
Best by far, and often cheaper in the long run if you factor in waste and nutrition since whole grain lasts much longer than milled grain, is to buy whole grains and grind them yourself. I have a small hand grinder. It was inexpensive--under $50. You can get attachments for your mixer or invest in a fancy electric grinder, but I find that there's something satisfying about using a hand-powered grinder. Lehmans.com has a wide variety of them in many price ranges.

Once a week or so I toast some grain in a dry frying pan on the stove just until they start to emit a nutty smell. Then, once they cool, I grind them on the coarsest setting on my grain mill. Children like to help with this sometimes, especially if you have a hand grinder. What you are going for is barely ground--cracked, really; if you end up with flour, you've gotten it too fine. Make some bread. Then I store the ground grain in an airtight tin (a McCann's tin as it happens) until I need it. I try not to grind more than I can use in a week.

Having said all this, I need to emphasize that you do NOT have to go to all that trouble to make a good porridge. Just buy small batches of cracked grains from a reputable source--make sure it hasn't been sitting on a shelf since the Truman Administration, or even the Clinton Administration.

Cooking it up
It's variable, but a safe rule of thumb for porridge is one part grain to four parts water. You want it wetter than you would make the same grain for dinner.

My favorite way to prepare it used to be in a very small crockpot I've had since I left home, a little one-person pot that makes exactly enough porridge for the family's breakfast as long as we're not all incredibly starving. I put the grain and the water in the pot the night before, put the cover on, plugged it in and forgot about it. Another method: Try a widemouth thermos: Put the grain and water in the thermos, cover with a tea cozy or thick kitchen towel and you should have nicely cooked porridge in the morning.

Since I discovered Nourishing Traditions, however, the way I cook my porridge has changed. It's also made it faster. The night before, I put my cracked grain in my rice cooker (without a rice cooker you could use just a plain pot) with water to cover and a pinch of salt. In the morning, I add more water, start my rice cooker (or use the stovetop method below) and in about 10-15 minutes I have rich, creamy porridge. Soaking the grain makes the nutrients in it more bio-available, as well as speeding up the cooking times. The rice cooker makes it almost as easy as toast.

Failing any of these, you can use the old reliable stovetop method. Put your water and a pinch of salt on the stove to boil in a pot with a lid. When you've got a good rolling boil, pour your grain into the water in a thin stream, stirring as you go. This will prevent lumps. Turn the water down to simmer and cook for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. If you have a flame tamer or heat diffuser to put under the pot, so much the better; it will keep the porridge from scorching. Pop the lid on, take it off the heat and let it sit for another 5-10 minutes.

Serve it forth
Serve your porridge with--pick one--maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, molasses, jam, raisins, minced dried fruit, sliced fresh fruit--and milk, rice milk, cream or even buttermilk as they do in Scotland (not as odd as it sounds on oats, though not my favorite). Add a pat of butter, or not. Add a sprinkling of cinnamon, or not.

My favorite toppings depends on what's in the porridge. If it's all or mostly corn, I put molasses or honey, butter and just enough milk to thin it. If it's brown rice (delicious for breakfast!) all I put on it are raisins and cinnamon. With oats, it's milk, brown sugar or real maple syrup, cinnamon and a little butter.

You will find that a breakfast of porridge will fuel you for your day like no other. We eat it year round; it's cheap, it's incredibly nutritious, and beautifully delicious.


Anhata's picture

My litle crockette runs to hot to leave in and cook the grains overnight. The grains are overbaked in the morning and it don't taste so good.

DH being who and what he is, though, suggested that we put one of the electric timers on it! You know, the kind you use on Christmas lights? I love this man. All I need now is to find out how long it takes to cook the porridge in my little pot without burning it...

Your Family's General Store, Naturally

AnnaArcturus's picture

Despite being a NT fan for the past six months or so, I hadn't gotten into the habit of making porridge for our family until I borrowed "the Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook" by Beth Hensperger from our local library. She had a complete chapter on porridges, although she didn't seem to soak her's overnight (I do, the same recipe works wonderfully). Our rice cooker is a fancy fuzzy logic variety that's programmable and can make just about anything up to and including cakes. It was pretty expensive up front, but I think it's more than made up for it over the years with all the nutritious grains, beans, and lentils we've made in it.

A suggestion inspired by the rice cooker book: save your leftover rice or porridge throughout the week and use it to make a crockpot or rice cooker "rice" (or whatever's on hand) pudding for a special Sunday breakfast. A suggestion inspired by NT: If you do any sprouting, sprout some barley and toss the sprouts into your porridge for a natural malt sweetener.

Honey's picture

I really want to work on my nutrition, and just this afternoon I was thinking maybe I could get to like porridge for breakfast. I have had the boxed stuff before (ready Brek) and didn't like it, but I remember I liked semolina for dessert when I was in primary school and I used to love that with a spoonful of jam.

This site has some more porridge recipes - I like the sound of the one with vanilla, butterscotch liqueur and marshmallows :) http://www.goldenspurtle.com/

Shaun's picture

I e-bayed a little Crockette and it got here today. I can't wait! I got a Bob's Red Mill variety mixed grain porridge. Not up for grinding my own just yet-- DH still recovering from surgery, DD3 all flu-y, and me still depressed. Someday . . .


KerryAnne's picture

I wanted to know if anyone has a recipe for "Flour mush" This was a recipe that my mother had written down on a piece of flour sack from her grandmothers’ things and now of course it is gone. As a child I would make this all the time. I know it has Flour...Milk...sugar...and I think eggs. We added vanilla. Originally it had just the four ingredients. My mom said that it is almost like custard except it only has two eggs from what I can remember.
Any help would be appreciated
Thank you

Lynn's picture

I picked this up from Alton Brown, and since my kids don't get a lot of processed foods they need the fat: For one part grain, use 3 parts water and 1 part cream. So if I use one cup of steel-cut oats I use 3 cups of water and 1 cup cream. For corn porridge I cut that back to 1 part polenta/grits, 2 parts water and 1 part cream. Truly delicious.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Selena's picture

Every few weeks, my friend I like to call "gypsy" stops by. She lives in a neighboring town and rents a room from some folks, but her church is here. So, she makes the round of 4 or 5 friend's places every weekend. Every morning, she eats instant oats. Bless her, although I love those oats too... she murders them in the dish and I can't watch her eat that stiff paste! When I cook them, it's on the stove. When she does, she pours them into a dish, puts some water in and puts it in the micro.

Maybe if I do this the next time she's over, we both could have a good breakfast together.

Anhata's picture

Don't you soak, drain, then set for overnight cook, Lynn?

Wow, I can't beleive I can use my rice cooker. How cool is that? I was going to try to find a tiny crock like yours (it's the cutest little crock pot on the planet, people).

Your Family's General Store, Naturally

knittingwoman's picture

I have never soaked the grains, something to try. I make oatmeal porridge quite often. Made it yesterday, cooked it with apples and blueberries and nuts in it, as well as cardamon pods, cloves and powdered cinnamon. I even eat left over day old porridge if there is any. We do make congee with left over white rice. I sometimes buy cream of brown rice and cook that too. My daughter can't have dairy products. She also doesn't tolerate modern wheat but is okay with other gluten containing products.

Lynn's picture

Posshibly? And I'm trying to think of the name of the thing that steps down electrical current...dang it...a resistor? can you get a resistor that plugs in between the wall and an appliance?

Hack the crockette!

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Lynn's picture

I live not far from the actual Bob's Red Mill (yay!) and most of the porridge we eat is ground there, not here. :) Which reminds me, I'd better get breakfast going!

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Lynn's picture

Note that Josie is four in this story. She is now eight. :)

My current technique: Start the grain soaking with a sprinkling of salt the morning before. Just before bed, drain it, refill it, and set the crock pot to cook overnight. I have a Rival Crock-ette, it's teeny and exactly the right size for porridge. While they don't make that particular one any more, this one looks like a good substitute, and it's cheap, too.

Soaking grains neutralizes their natural anti-nutrients, making their nutrition more available and curing a lot of digestive difficulties you can have with grains. Josie and I have no trouble with gluten-containing grains if they're treated this way, though we still avoid modern wheat. TMI department: Josie and I rarely have gas and diarrhea like we used to since we started eating porridge prepared this way, and started avoiding wheat as much as possible.

I use a LOT more water now, easily one-to-four grain-to-water, and if we don't eat most of the porridge I just add a little more water and keep it going. It's often better the next day; the Chinese believe that the longer you cook porridge the better it is for you.

I also have a pepper grinder that I keep filled with whole pickling spices, and I grind that into the cooking water when I turn the crockpot on. It contains many good digestive herbs (black pepper, cinnamon and ginger, for example) and makes the porridge fragrant, spicy and a little sweet.(Pickling spice is one of my great culinary cheats, the other being herbes de provence.)

Our favorite grain right now is brown rice. We all tolerate it well, and it doesn't need soaked as long so if I forget to put grain on to soak in the morning I can throw that on quite late in the day. I call this "white people congee." :) Congee is a traditional Chinese porridge that's usually made of white rice and is usually served savory, whereas I make ours with brown rice and serve it with butter, a sweetener like honey, sorghum or maple syrup, and possibly milk and dried fruit. Tomorrow I'm putting dried apples in mine.

We also like spelt berries and oat groats, especially cooked 24 hours, and sometimes I'll make a mixture of grains.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Alyss's picture

What is in your pickling spices? I am quite a NT pickler and last year made a batch of cucumber pickles with a store bought pickling spice mix. I thought it was disgusting. I know that each brand is different and so I was wondering what is in your pickling spice that you like so much. Maybe even with a good ingredient list I could concoct my own.
Thanks so much!

Lynn's picture

The spice mix I use, all whole or at least chunked, has peppercorns, red pepper flakes, coriander, cinnamon, bay leaf, cloves, mustard seeds, allspice, and I think some ginger. This is off the top of my head. It seems like an odd mix for porridge but you'd be surprised how good it is. Grind it before adding.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Lynn's picture

...that I don't use pickling spice for pickles. I agree, it makes disgusting pickles.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

jim's picture

My mother use to make it for us also. I don't really have a recipe but one day I tried making it and it came out pretty good. I used
2 cups of milk
1 cup of water
salt to taste
when that was hot (not boiling) I added sifted flour a little at a time until it got very thick.
that was it.
I like mine with lots of butter, Cinnamon, and sugar.

Michaelc's picture

I put a bowl with 2 cups of water and 1/tsp salt in the microwave for 4 minutes to get it boiling and then dump 1/2 cup steel cut oats into the bowl and cover it with a small plate with a potholder on top (for insulation). I let it sit in the microwave for an hour and then hit it one more microwaving minute to heat it up a little. It comes out with just the right blend of creamy and crunch for my taste. This works well if you dump fruit in with the oats as well.

DC's picture


Thanks for your tips. I have never had the patience to make brown rice. It seems to take forever and usually doesn't come out right. I am looking forward to trying your technique for both the brown rice and porridge.


Kimara's picture

I actually happened upon your site because I was reading Dubliners by James Joyce and read... "While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout... and I had no clue what stirabout was. What a fascinating article. I love oatmeal, but I must try your beautiful porridge. Thanks for this great post. I'll be linking on Facebook.

Guest's picture

Hi, maybe I missed something, but what are the specific instructions for making McCann's Irish Oatmeal (not steel cutoats) in a crockpot or rice pot?

Lynn's picture

The directions are the same. :)

JayZen's picture

Know what Bob's has two style cut oats - the finer Scottish Oatmeal and the coarser (and probably better) Steel Cut Oats. I think I've bought larger ones in bulk.

Definitely worth experimenting with different sizes and cooking approaches! I usually top groats very simply with good maple syrup (big flavor-enhancer) and a few organic Thompson raisins for a little taste-texture contrast. Good oats can shine with not too much stuff on them, and it's worth a try. Not even using milk any more, though some people love steamed hot milk over oats (Jamie Kennedy style).

For days we might cheat with rolled oats, I've looked around and not all thick oats are rolled the same - the thickest ones you can find might be best for flavor and texture. Hunt bulk stores and organic stores.

I'm getting a rice cooker thanks to these great tips, thank you.

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