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Alimentary, My Dear

Courses for Horses:
A Homemade Instant Oatmeal That Even a Breakfast‑Hater Can Love

By Tamia Nelson Breaking My Fast

January 21, 2014

I like to get an early start on the day, but it's still hard to forsake a warm bed and brave the chill morning air. Coffee is my principal weapon in this never‑ending struggle against indolence. Which is why I welcomed the arrival of the camping cafetière. Now my riverbank java is every bit as good as the joe I drink at home. And I look forward to it just as much.

I can't say the same thing about breakfast. I eat it, to be sure. No paddler can go far without fuel for her engine. But eating breakfast is a duty, not a pleasure. This isn't a new thing, either. My indifference to breakfast fare was a constant thorn in my mother's side. Feeding a houseful of kids on a tight budget was difficult enough without the added burden of having to coax a reluctant eater to clean her plate.

It's still a chore, and Farwell has now taken on the job of goading me to start my day right. (Farwell thinks breakfast is the best meal of the day, and he makes the most of it, eating his way through multiple courses. Left to his own devices, he'd eat breakfast morning, noon, and night.) Notwithstanding Farwell's valiant efforts, however, coffee is the anodyne that makes breakfast bearable. That and oatmeal. It isn't that I'm especially fond of oatmeal. I'm not. But oatmeal is easy to prepare. And it sticks with me. I've even learned to like the flavor, though I can't bring spoon to mouth without thinking of Samuel ("Dictionary") Johnson's famous definition:

Oats. … A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Well, I'm fond of horses — Gulliver's sojourn among the Houyhnhnms is the best part of Swift's classic, I think — and I admire the Scots, so Johnson's would‑be putdown constitutes no less than a ringing endorsement in my eyes. In short, oatmeal is my breakfast of choice. But there's still the time‑and‑trouble aspect. It's only easy to prepare if you use instant oatmeal. And while I think that the stuff is palatable — just — Farwell does not. He also finds the standard serving size too small. For a while he ate two packets, but this left him with less appetite for the remaining 99 courses of his usual breakfast, and that worried him.

The bottom line? Extrapolating from an admittedly limited sample, I've concluded that not every paddler will warm to instant oatmeal, and some (many?) will find portion sizes either too small or too big. Is there a solution to this problem? You bet there is. So let's go …

In Search of Bulk Instant Oatmeal

If the serving sizes offered by the makers of prepackaged instant oatmeal don't suit, the answer is to buy in bulk and measure out just what you need. Simple, no?

Yes. And that's the strategy I use when shopping for staple foods. I buy large quantities, and if the retail packaging is inconvenient, I store my purchases in big plastic jars that once housed cocktail peanuts. The shelves in my larder sag under the weight of jars of rice, couscous, pasta, flour, sugar, popcorn, oats (as groats), and "old fashioned" oatmeal. Bulk instant oatmeal proved elusive, however. I found plenty of big "economy‑size" boxes of "individual serving" packets, but I couldn't buy the stuff in bulk. And since I'm no great lover of redundant packaging, this rankled.

Am I making too much of the problem? I don't think so. Let's take a look at the alternatives before we go any further. There are important differences between regular, quick‑cooking, and instant oatmeal. I've touched on these before in an earlier article, but here's the executive summary:

  • Rolled Oats, aka "Old Fashioned" Oatmeal.  Just like it says on the tin. These are whole oats, steamed and rolled. They take about 10 minutes to cook.

  • Quick‑Cooking Oatmeal.  Going by appearances, this is made from oats that have been chopped fine before rolling. They cook in about three minutes.

  • Instant Oatmeal.  Made from finely milled rolled oats that have been precooked and dried, this is ready in a minute or two after you add boiling water.

"Old‑fashioned" oats are flavorful, but I don't want to spend 10 minutes watching a pot first thing in the morning, not to mention the time it takes to clean up afterward. In fact, I really don't want to dirty a pot at all, and this pretty much rules out quick‑cooking oatmeal, too. Which means that — on most days, at any rate — it's instant oatmeal or nothing. And since I couldn't buy it in bulk, I wondered if I could make it from scratch. The package information didn't offer much in the way of clues, though the list of ingredients was impressive: rolled oats, of course, plus calcium carbonate, sugar (two kinds, no less), salt, guar gum, caramel coloring, and a pharmacy's worth of vitamins.

I couldn't match that. But did I want to? I didn't. In fact, I'd be happy to lose the guar gum, which I blame for the rather glutinous mouthfeel of instant oatmeal. I didn't fancy precooking and drying oatmeal, either. This put paid to any notion of emulating the commercial product. So I tried a more direct approach. I ripped open a packet of instant oatmeal, emptied it into a bowl, and examined the contents under magnification. And what did I see? Tiny fragments of paper‑thin chopped rolled oats, along with a generous helping of powder. Perhaps this was the secret. After all, I'd once made a reasonable approximation of instant oatmeal from quick‑cooking oats, without having to resort to precooking. Could I now go that effort one better, and make an easy‑to‑prepare instant from whole "old‑fashioned" oats? That would give me the best of both worlds.

Or would it? There was only one way to find out. It was time to put my idea to …

Trial by Test Kitchen

I got off to a bad start. My early attempts were all failures. I used a small food processor to mill whole rolled oats fine, yielding a serving size of around ½ cup, Farwell's preferred morning "dose." But try as I might, I couldn't get the grind right, and the resulting oatmeal alternated between gummy and raw.

A second round of trials was more promising. This time I ground only a portion of the whole rolled oats fine, leaving the remainder in its original state. Somewhat to my surprise, it worked. Once I'd "cooked" the processed oats (by the simple expedient of pouring boiling water over them), the resulting oatmeal had a nutty flavor and a chewy texture, without a trace of gumminess. Eureka!

Want to give it a try yourself? Then here's how to …

Make Instant Oatmeal With Real Oat Goodness

As always, the first step is to assemble the ingredients, along with whatever tools and utensils you'll need. Happily, the list of pantry staples is short: some "old fashioned" rolled oats and a little salt. (You can omit the salt, if you like.) Any other ingredients — sugar, cinnamon, or dried fruit, say — can be added after processing.

Ready? Let's go. Photo A below shows my preparations. The roster of essentials includes a large bowl, a cardboard tub of "old‑fashioned" rolled oats, and a tub, jar, or bin to store the final product. The plastic container in the photo is one of the repurposed cocktail peanut jars that I mentioned earlier — something I have in great numbers, thanks to Farwell's insatiable peanut habit. (Once washed, these make odor‑proof camp food‑safes, too, though they won't do much to deter an inquisitive bear.) You can use any suitable container, of course. Just be sure it's clean, dry, and has a tight‑fitting lid.

The next step is simple: Fill your clean, dry container with whole rolled oats. Then decant half the contents into a large mixing bowl (Photo B). In effect, your container has become a supersized measuring cup. Next, bring your processor to the fore (Photo C). NB If it's as small as mine, you'll have to batch process the oats.


The daily grind now begins in earnest. Empty the remaining oatmeal from your container‑cum‑measuring cup into the food processor's waiting maw and pulse‑grind the oats until they're chopped fine. That's chopped fine, mind. Not reduced to powder, though you will get some powder as a by‑product of the chopping. Don't be alarmed. This is a Good Thing. Photo D (below) shows the before and after.

Next, mix the chopped, processed oats with the whole oats that you previously decanted into the bowl (Photo E). If you have to resort to batch processing, just add the processed oats one batch at a time. Finally, when the last batch of fine‑chopped oats has been mixed in, add a couple of teaspoons of salt (Photo F).


Your final product will look like nothing so much as dusty whole rolled oats:

Extreme Close-up

Cooking couldn't be easier. Measure out as much (or as little) as you want into a bowl. (A typical commercial "single‑serving" packet holds about 13 cup of instant oatmeal, whereas Photo G shows a ½ cup measure.) Now add enough boiling water to immerse the oats (Photo H), adding just a little more if you like your oatmeal soppy. Cover the bowl to hold in the heat (Photo I). Wait a minute. That's it. Breakfast is served. At this stage in the proceedings, Farwell throws in some raisins and brown sugar, stirs, and then adds a little milk. You can add whatever you like, of course.


Want to see a head‑to‑head comparison of homemade versus commercial instant oatmeal? Here it is:

A Game of Bowls

Notice that the homemade oatmeal retains a large proportion of whole oats, while the commercial stuff is mostly finely milled oat "chaff" in a glue‑like matrix. The homemade also tastes better: nutty and oaty, with no cloying, glutinous aftertaste. It has a better texture, too — chewy, not gummy. In my view (and in Farwell's), it's the hands‑down winner of the boil‑off.

Best of all, with homemade instant you can tailor your oatmeal to your own tastes and needs. You can prepare however much (or little) you want, with no regard for packet size. And if you prefer something less chewy, just increase the proportion of fine‑chopped oats to whole in the mix. Fruit? Maple sugar? Cinnamon? Milk? Add any or all of these. You're making the decisions, not some faceless Mad Man in a glass‑and‑steel office tower. Why not have it your way for a change?

On the Boil

Though breakfast may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's an essential part of any active person's day. But it's not a meal you'll often want to linger over when in camp. In other words, "instant" isn't a pejorative term where breakfast is concerned. That said, I've been unhappy with commercial instant oatmeal for a long time. And now I've done something about it: I've made my own. You can, too. So why not give it a try before your next trip? You'll save money and time — and you might even start looking forward to breakfast!


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