Saturday, February 16, 2008

Homemade Instant Oatmeal: Learning

It's not often I spend so much time and energy on just one dish, but this one is important to me. I don't really have all that many health problems, but I do have higher-than-average blood pressure. I can't say my cholesterol is really where it should be either. There are all sorts of solutions for these problems, ranging from low sodium diets to specialized medications. One solution that fits the bill for both problems is oatmeal. Fortunately for me, I like oatmeal. I think I always have, so long as it's done right.

For me, done right usually means Scottish oats, also known as Irish oats, pinhead oats, steel-cut oats. Sadly, this kind of oat requires extended cooking time, and isn't generally available when I travel. And I travel a lot. If I were to eat for breakfast what was generally available to me on the road, I would die of deliciously, fattily saturated bacon and sausage, assuming that the insulin poisoning from an assorted variety of tasty danishes didn't get to me first.

One day in Atlanta, I discovered that the training center I was at had instant oats. They weren't Scottish, but they weren't totally crap either. Two packets later, I was in apple-cinnamon heaven, but still in danger of the sugary goodness rotting away my body. Maybe instant oats weren't so bad after all, but they could still use some improvement. It was time to do research.

First, I had to look up recipes. I was planning to ignore most of the instructions anyway, but I still needed a starting point. I found a recipe that involved half a cup of oats, some dried fruit, sugar substitute and salt. Oats and dried fruit were good. I have yet to find a sugar substitute that didn't taste horrible, so that was out. Real sugar was essential. Prematurely-added salt would destroy the creamniness that could be weaned from the pentosans in the oats. If salt was to be added, it could not be added to the mix.

I like fruit. Fresh fruit is better, but dried will do in a pinch. That's good because fresh fruit is not known for travel or long-term storage. The problem with store-bought flavored instant oatmeal is the decided lack of fruit. The apple cinnamon has just enough apples in it to put it on the label, and nothing more. Sometimes it's even worse than that. Don't be surprised if you look at the ingredient list of your "Peaches and Cream" oatmeal and discover that it realy just has peach-flavored apples. I don't know about you, but I feel cheated.

Dried apples were easy to find. I'm also a big fan of dried cranberries, and it was almost as easy to find dried sweetened cranberries. After some considerable searching, I was unable to find dried peaches, except when combined with other dried fruit. Then one day in North Carolina, I struck gold: the Whole Foods market had a brand of freeze-dried peaches called Just Peaches. Right next to the peaches was a container of Just Strawberries, as well as several other varieties of freeze-dried fruits and veggies. I was set.

A word about freeze-dried food. I don't consider it unnatural. It's just a different method, one which I might note is centuries old. What I don't like about freeze-dried food is eating it as is. The company that makes Just Peaches seems to intend them to be eaten like that. Personally, I think it needs to be reconstituted in water before it's any good. Luckily for me, that's how oats are cooked anyway, so I can deal with it.

The nice thing about putting together your own instant oat mix is that you can choose how much fruit you add. For a half cup of oats, I will add anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to 1/3 of a cup of fruit, depending on which fruit. Dried apples are a little less, freeze-dried strawberries get a little more. The other thing you can decide is now only how much sugar, but what kind of sugar.

The apples get dark brown sugar, plus some cinnamon and any other spice that I feel like adding. The peaches were better with white sugar, along with some finely-chopped candied ginger. Strawberries also got white sugar, along with was essentially powdered milk, labelled as "dairy coffee creamer". Don't use the crappy non-dairy creamers. If you want to know why, just take a look at the ingredient list. If you can get past the solid/powdered high-fructose corn syrup, I'll be impressed. Last of all, the cranberries got orange drink mix.

Okay, I lost you again, I know. Look, I like cranberry and orange together. It's like they were made for each other. The way I saw it, I had a couple of choices: add sugar + dried orange zest or add powdered orange drink mix, which was orange-flavored and already had sugar. I'm still wanting to try the orange zest and sugar, but since most people don't have the time to bother, I decided to go with orange drink mix for now.

Honestly, I would have been okay with Tang. Like most children of the 80's, I like Tang. But I couldn't find any at the markets I looked in that didn't have sucralose, aka Splenda. "It's made from real sugar, so it tastes like real sugar!" Blah. In my ever so humble opinion, it tastes like fake styrofoam, and it makes anything that it's added to taste even worse.

In Utah, we have a company called Stephen's Gourmet that makes powdered hot chocolate mixes. They're actually pretty good too; I've been addicted to their mint truffle flavor for years. They also have a flavor called Citrus & Spice, which they refer to as a gourmet wassail. It's not hot chocolate at all, but it's pretty good. I almost picked it up, but then I saw "Orange Creme" next to it and unwittingly bought that instead, not realizing that it was actually a cocoa flavor. The resulting oatmeal was still pretty good, but since chocolate oatmeal is still kind of weird for me, I went back and bought the Citrus & Spice. It's not Tang, but it's way better.

So, how much sugar to add? I don't like my oatmeal to be nearly as candy-sweet as commercial manufacturers do, so it took some experimentation. Depending on the other flavors and the type of sugar, I discovered that anywhere from two to three teaspoons was generally plenty for me. If you're adding something that is already sweetened, such as candied ginger or sweetened dried cranberries, you might be able to get away with less sugar. The powdered drink mix that I used was almost equal in terms of sweetness to regular sugar. I might also note that if you like honey and you frequent KFC, you might want to think about picking up some extra honey packets to use instead of sugar.

I still haven't really talked about the obvious ingredient: oats. You can buy plain instant oats in the store from the guy with the funny hat. For a single serving, I find that half a cup of instant oats is about right for me. Your mileage may vary. It's important that you use oats that are actually labelled as instant, or quick cooking. These are designed to be cooked in about a minute or less. Unless you want to tend to a pot of regular rolled oats for up to several minutes, this is what you need. Plus, when you travel, speed is of the essence.

Speaking of travel, how do I expect oats to be cooked in a hotel room? About half of the rooms that I stay in have microwaves, and that's just perfect. If your room doesn't, it probably has either a coffee maker, a hot water faucet next to the sink, or perhaps even both. In fact, I have stayed in very, very few hotels that did not have some sort of in-room coffee services. When I wake up in the morning, I fill the carafe about halfway with water, put it on the hotplate, and then hop in the shower. By the time I'm dressed and ready for breakfast, the water is hot enough. Since I don't drink coffee, and in fact don't really even know how to use a coffee maker, I can assume this is safe. Perhaps somebody will correct me on this.

Empty the oat mix into a bowl (I carry a cheap plastic bowl in my luggage now, along with a cheap plastic spoon), and cover with hot (boiling if possible) water. Give it a quick stir to make sure everything is evenly incorporated, then let it sit for a couple of minutes. Once it's soaked up some water, go ahead and stir to your heart's content. It will thicken as you stir. If you want to add salt, wait until it has started to thicken. The hotter the water and the less of it you use, the thicker it will get.

Back to making the actual oat mix. You'll want some quart-size (or pint-size if you can find them) zip-top baggies. If for some reason you have trouble locating some, the TSA always seems to be handing them out for free. But since they'll probably get unhappy with you when you start stuffing handfuls into your bag, you'll probably just want to head to the store and pick up a box. Besides, you'll probably be mixing things together before you leave for the airport anyway. Toss all of the ingredients in a bag, seal it up, give it a good shake (especially important if you used brown sugar, which may clump if it's not broken up), unseal it to press out any air, and seal it again. I usually pack five or six of those in a gallon-size zip-top baggie, along with a few packets of sugar horked from diners or hotel coffee stations, just in case. Don't worry about the baggies of oatmeal, the TSA hasn't seemed to mind just yet. But if I were you, I wouldn't use powdered sugar. That's the sort of confusion you want to avoid altogether. And if you're bringing honey, keep in mind that it does fall into the "liquid or gel" category.

A final note on salt. I have found that I like my oatmeal without any at all, and that's even better for my blood pressure. If you decide that you need salt, don't add it all to the mix itself. It will likely retard the thickening process, and that's probably not what you want. Carry salt packets with you, and add just a little after the oatmeal starts to thicken.

Now you have the theory on how homemade instant oat mixes can come together. I'm almost finished testing some basic recipes. Since testing involves making up a serving for breakfast, it can be a little slow. For those who don't want to wait, feel free to start experimenting. For the rest of you, expect an upcoming post to include instant oatmeal recipes for apple cinnamon, peach ginger, cranberry orange and strawberries and cream.


  1. Oatmeal is a great one. A couple of years ago we switched to having oatmeal as our main breakfast food (phasing out packaged cereals). It's been a big hit, although recently we've been doing more instant oatmeal and have regular cereals back in the mix.

    Along the other incentives, we absolutely noticed a difference with our kids. Their attention spans, an frequency of tantrums is greatly reduced when they have good oatmeal for breakfast vs cereal. I can only expect it does the same for me :)

    As another breakfast, I've recently played with using whole wheat berries. As an adult, not nearly as bad as I remember, and with a thermos, something you could easily make while on the road. Just toss in one part wheat berries to two parts boiling water, and let sit overnight. Add and flavorings you want after opening and draining in the morning.

  2. Excellent. I like this one so much, I'm going to link to it on my blog. Although, maybe I should wait until you have finished the recipes.

    (speaking of recipes, I don't suppose you've had a chance to wor on those muffins?)

  3. I've used coffee makers in hotels to heat up water for hot cocoa before. Generally what I do is pour the water in the reservoir and run the coffee maker normally. I'm not sure if that results in hotter water than you would get just on the warmer or not. Like you, I'm not actually familiar with how to make coffee.

    I have also been wanting to work on my own instant oatmeal. My kids love oatmeal but I just can't get past the size of the ingredients list (those "blueberries" are artificially flavored balls of sugar). More real fruit in their diet (and real cream!) can't be a bad thing.


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