I hated oatmeal growing up because it felt like sludge in my mouth. I knew the hot cereal was just oats boiled in water, so why was there so much mushy paste? Where did it come from?
Sludge should not be on the breakfast menu.
Sludge should not be on any menu.
I knew brown sugar and butter could make sludge bearable, but I only ate oatmeal when there were no other options. Usually I was a guest at someone else’s table. And if there was only white sugar to flavor it? I’d starve first!
My favorite way to eat oatmeal was in cookies or in a fruited crumble topping. And I’d buy oatmeal bread. I actually love the flavor and texture of oats, so I kept them in the pantry.
And then one day I found there were no other options for breakfast in my own house. I had to make oatmeal. It was plain old desperation, brought on by the two small children crying for food and tugging on my pajamas.
I started the salted water to boiling, tossed in the oats, and gave them a stir. I watched the pot.
Now what did I see, but this foamy loam rising up from the oats along the edges of the pot? I knew what this was because my mom had told me to skim it off whenever we made vegetable soup. It was starch.
Potatoes, carrots, and other starchy vegetables naturally contain starch. Some of that starch is released by boiling and forms bubbles and foam that clings to the sides of the cooking pot. You may use cornstarch to thicken your gravy or stir fry sauce. Cornstarch blends seamlessly into the gravy or sauce if you do it right. Natural starch forms bubbles that collect miniscule food particles and looks dirty, but it, too, can thicken soups and stews if it’s allowed to cook along with the good stuff.
Sometimes you want a natural thickener in your soups, but you never want foamy loam floating on top of your food. So you have two options: you can stir the pot a lot to incorporate the starch, or you can skim it off and discard it. My mother always told me to skim it off. I did this simply by sliding a spoon around the edges of the pot and tossing what I caught.
So here I was, staring at my pot of boiling oats and realizing I could perfect this centuries-old meal with a few flicks of my wrist. I grabbed my cooking spoon and skimmed the foam right out of the pot and tossed it away. I stirred the pot to release more starch and skimmed that off. I continued to stir and skim until no more foamy loam developed on the sides of my pot. Sludge be gone!
That day I served my first bowls of non-pasty, un-gluey, textured, scrumptious oatmeal. There have been many that followed.
And with that, I’m handing over the skimming spoon. May you revel in cooked oatmeal the rest of your days!
Rolled Oats Serves 4
4 C water
3 C rolled oats
Embellishments: brown sugar, butter, raisins, bananas, fresh or dried fruit, nuts, flaked coconut, syrup, honey, milk, cream
Bring water and salt to a boil over high heat. Stir in the oats and reduce heat to medium. Skim the starchy foam along the edge of the pot. Stir and skim until no more starch rises, usually just once or twice more. Turn off the heat and leave the pot on the burner for 5 more minutes. The oats continue cooking without agitation as the pot slowly cools.
Serving note: Brown sugar is far superior to white in this application and should definitely be available to guests, whatever your personal preference.