Oats (botanical name Avena sativa), while not as widely-grown and eaten as wheat, are one of the world's most important grain crops, particularly for people living in cool temperate climates. Distinguishable from wheat and barley by its open, spreading seed head, or ear, oats will grow in cool, moist climates and on poor soil, which goes a long way to explaining why it is such a staple in Scotland, for instance.
Oats: a food usually reserved for horses in England, in Scotland supports the people.
- Samuel Johnson (an Englishman).
Aye, which is why in England you'll raise fine horses, while in Scotland we'll raise fine people.
- Johnson's biographer, James Boswell (a Scot).
Oats are used as a filler in delicacies such as haggis and in hearty soups, and you can make delicious biscuits from oat flour and flakes, but it's probably as the stuff porridge is made from that oats are best-known. As can be seen from the above quotes, oats are also a common animal feed, particularly for horses. Indeed, it's possible that the cultivation of oats grew alongside the domestication of horses.
Oats can be used for more than just food and animal fodder. Oat-based skin cleansers have become quite common these days, although this use of the plant has been known of for centuries.
Variety is the Spice of Life
The oats that we buy for our larder can be found in several forms, each dependent upon the degree of processing at the mill.
This is the whole oat grain, with only the hard, unpalatable outer husk removed. Usually pale yellow in colour, they are long and thin with a smooth shiny surface, and look not unlike brown rice. They still have their entire bran coat, also like brown rice. Heck, they even taste a little like brown rice! Like other cereal grains they can be boiled and eaten, but if you've ever tried eating whole oats you'll understand why they are more commonly used after having been processed into one of the forms described below.
Also known as steel-cut oats, and sometimes referred to as coarse, or rough oatmeal, pinhead oats are made by passing whole oat grains through steel cutters which chop each one into three or four pieces. Since they still contain the whole grain including the oat bran, pinhead oats are very nutritious. They also make by far the best porridge of all the different types of oats.
These come in two distinct varieties - jumbo and regular. Jumbo oats are made by first steaming the whole grain for a few minutes, thus partially cooking it, then passing it between rollers to flatten it out. They can be eaten raw in muesli, or used to make a coarse porridge.
Regular rolled oats are made by putting pinhead oatmeal through the same process. They cook more quickly and make a finer porridge, and can also be used in oat biscuits, flapjacks, and parkin, as well as a topping on brown bread.
If pinhead oatmeal is cooked for longer and rolled even more thinly, it produces the kind of oats used for making some types of 'instant' porridge. Since, generally speaking, the more you process a food the less nutritious it becomes, instant oats are best avoided if you want to get the full benefit of this grain.
Like most other grains, oats can be ground to produce flour, and this usually comes in three grades - coarse (see above - Pinhead Oats), medium and fine. Medium oatmeal1 can be used in biscuits, scones and crumble toppings to give a nutty flavour, and can be added to soups for a thicker, creamier result. Fine oatmeal is the main ingredient in Scottish bannocks and oatcakes, which are traditionally cooked on a bakestone - a slab of slate or iron, which is set over a brick-built hearth. Today they're more likely to be cooked on an iron griddle.
Although not as abundant in most minerals and vitamins as wheat, oats are still an exceedingly nutritious food, and a very good source of iron. Whole oats contain more fibre than just about any other whole grain, and as much carbohydrate as most of the other grass-derived grains such as wheat and barley. They do however contain up to four times as much fat as other grains, so oats can go rancid much quicker and should therefore be bought often and in small quantities.
Oats have gained a reputation in recent years of being particularly good for you, largely because of the high fibre content. Fibre is necessary in a diet to keep bowel movements regular, and there are two types - soluble and insoluble fibre. Oats are abundant in both.
Insoluble fibre - as its name implies - doesn't dissolve in water. It has a spongy texture which can absorb many times its own weight of liquid, and it moves through the gut relatively quickly, carrying whatever it finds in there with it, earning it the nickname 'Nature's Broom'. Insoluble fibre is mainly found in whole grains, especially the outer parts, and in the skins of most fruits and vegetables.
Soluble fibre, on the other hand, does dissolve in water and is turned by the process of digestion into a viscous gel which moves much more slowly through the intestines. It inhibits the absorption of sugars, particularly glucose, into the body, which means that blood sugar levels aren't subject to excessive peaks and troughs. Diabetics can therefore benefit greatly from a diet with plenty of soluble fibre. It is mostly derived from the inner parts of grains and from the flesh of fruits and vegetables.
In the 1980s it was announced that 'Oats are good for your heart!' Well, there is something to this claim. One component of the soluble fibre found in oats is beta-glucans2, and this compound has been found to lower the level of cholesterol in the bloodstream. So accepted is this now, that no less an authority than the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) allows products that contain at least 0.75 grams of beta-glucans per serving to legally claim that 'Soluble fiber from foods such as oats, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.'
For centuries, oats have been used in folk medicine to ease a number of ailments and conditions, including stress and anxiety, eczema, psoriasis, insomnia, and nervous exhaustion. Oats have even been used to treat withdrawal from tobacco. Most of these uses are purely traditional and may or may not have been sanctioned by relevant government bodies or authorities.
A tea made from one heaped tablespoon (about 15g or half an ounce) of oat groats steeped in one cup (250ml) of boiling water then strained and allowed to cool can be taken several times a day and before bed.
A soothing oat bath can be made in several ways.
- By running the bathwater through a piece of muslin or cheesecloth - or even a sock - containing several tablespoonfuls of oat groats.
- By taking the same muslin bag of oats and simply leaving it to float in the bath.
- By boiling 500g (1lb) of shredded oat straw in 2l (about half a gallon) of water for 30 minutes, and pouring the strained liquid into the bath.
Oats are a common ingredient in many skincare preparations these days. Besides the aforementioned use as an emollient3, oats are frequently used as an exfolliant to remove the surface layer of dead skin cells. Oats can be found in bars of soap as well as in creams and gels, and home-made preparations can be made from easy-to-find ingredients, many of which you probably have in your kitchen.
A very basic oat scrub can be made by grinding oat groats either with a pestle and mortar or in an electric grinder, mixing with a little water or milk, then rubbing all over the skin before rinsing off.
Cornmeal and Oatmeal Facial Scrub
- 2 oz fine oatmeal
- 2 oz fine cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon milk
Oat and Aloe Facial Exfoliant
A similar product to the above, but with the added benefit of aloe vera.
Mix together equal parts by volume of finely-ground oats, finely-ground almonds, honey, and aloe vera gel. Apply the result to the skin with a circular motion, then rinse well and pat the skin dry.
Oats lag behind wheat in their ubiquity because they lack the necessary protein to produce gluten, and are therefore next to useless for making bread - the stuff of life4. Gluten is developed when water is added to wheat and other flours, and it forms elastic strands which stretch as the gases given off by the raising agent - usually either yeast or bicarbonate of soda - expand during proving and then cooking. Grains with high gluten content create light, airy bread. If however, you try to make bread with 100% oat flour you'll very probably end up with something more akin to a house brick, although a proportion of oat flour can be added to bread recipes to give an interesting flavour.
This lack of gluten does however make oats very useful for anyone with coeliac disease or any kind of gluten intolerance.
- 1 measure (by volume) of pinhead oats
- 3 - 4 measures of water (depending on how thick you prefer your porridge)
- Up to 1 measure of any kind of dried fruit you care to throw in (optional)
- Salt to taste
Put all the ingredients into a slow cooker (crockpot) before you go to bed and set it to 'low'. In the morning you will have a pot of delicious, creamy porridge just waiting to be eaten for breakfast. It couldn't be easier. Serve with milk and sugar. Purists and Scots may insist that porridge (sometimes called 'porage') should be accompanied by nothing apart from salt.
Parkin is a rich, dark, moist cake flavoured with ginger, and is very popular in the north of England.
- 350g (12oz) medium oatmeal
- 110g (4oz) margarine
- 110g (40z) black treacle (molasses)
- 110g (4oz) golden syrup (use honey or corn syrup if you can't find golden syrup)
- 110g (4oz) plain (all purpose) flour
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 50g (2oz) brown sugar
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Grated rind of half a lemon
Grease a 28cm (11 inch) by 18cm (7 inch) cake tin and line it with baking parchment or waxed paper, and set your oven to 325°F, 160°C, Gas Mark 3. Blend the oatmeal, flour, grated rind, and ginger in a mixing bowl. Over a low heat, melt the margarine, treacle, syrup (or honey), and sugar. When the margarine has melted, pour the resulting liquid into the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the milk, then add it to the mixture and beat well to incorporate. Turn the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake for 90 minutes. The cake will be ready when a skewer or sharp knife inserted into the deepest part comes out clean. After removing it from the oven, allow it to cool in the tin for about ten minutes, then take it out and let it cool completely on a wire rack. Parkin tastes best if stored for a few days in an air-tight tin or wrapped in aluminium foil... if you can keep it that long.
Oatcake recipes are common to several parts of Britain, particularly Scotland, Wales and Staffordshire. They're not really cakes but are actually thin, crisp biscuits which can be served with sweet or savoury toppings and accompaniments, such as cheese, paté, jam or sliced meat.
- 170g (6oz) fine oatmeal
- 50g (2oz) wholemeal flour
- 50g (2oz) lard, dripping, bacon fat or poultry fat
- 1 level tsp salt
- Cold water
ANZAC (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) biscuits originated during the First World War as a way for the wives, mothers and girlfriends of Australian soldiers to supplement the soldiers' army rations while they were away fighting. Since the only way to send parcels at the time was by ship, and since Australia is a very long way from where the fighting was taking place, this food had to be edible after as much as two months of travelling in a ship's hold without refrigeration. The answer was a Scottish biscuit recipe using rolled oats. Instead of using eggs as a binding agent, golden syrup (sometimes black treacle or molasses) was used. This recipe makes about 40 biscuits.
- 125g (4.5oz) butter
- 2 tbsp golden syrup
- Three-quarters of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tbsp water
- 90g (3oz) rolled oats
- 90g (3oz) desiccated coconut
- 150g (5oz) plain flour
- 170g (6oz) brown sugar