Steel-cut oatmeal is a superlatively healthful breakfast option and can be as tasty as you choose to make it. Its only real shortcoming is its 20- to 30-minute cooking time, which isn't always practical in the morning. If you love oatmeal -- or at least want to eat it more often -- your countertop rice cooker can be your best friend. Simply measure the ingredients and start your cooker, then get on with your morning routine while breakfast looks after itself.
The Steel-Cut Difference
Oats are something of a problem child within the family of grains. They're rich in healthy natural oils but also contain an enzyme that causes their oils to quickly become rancid. Par-cooking the oats with steam quells the troublesome enzyme, creating oat "groats." The groats are soft while hot and can be rolled into the familiar flat, quick-cooking flakes. Alternatively, they can be chopped with steel blades into smaller pieces. These are "steel-cut" or Irish oats, which aren't as quick-cooking as rolled oats but retain their pleasantly chewy texture when the porridge is finished. For diners who object to the sometimes-gluey texture of oatmeal from rolled oats, steel-cut oats can be a revelation.
The Porridge Setting
If your rice cooker is an advanced model with a dedicated cycle for porridge, making steel-cut oats in it will be a breeze. Simply measure out 1 part oats and approximately 2 1/2 parts water, them pour them into the rice cooker's cooking pan. Add a pinch of salt, close the cooker's lid, and start the cooking cycle. The rice cooker's porridge cycle works in much the same way as its regular cycle, cooking the grain until it absorbs the available moisture. The primary difference is that the porridge setting cooks your grain for longer at a lower setting to prevent the porridge from boiling over.
No Porridge Setting
Boil-over is the major challenge if you have an entry-level rice cooker -- without the porridge cycle. Cook only small amounts at first until you're comfortable with the process. Use the same 1:2.5 ratio of oats to water, and press the appliance's "cook" or "start" button to begin the cycle. The first time you cook oats, keep a sharp eye on the pot as it starts to boil. If it begins to boil over, lift the lid briefly and stir the oats a time or two. If you know ahead of time you'll want oats in the morning, you can reduce the risk of your porridge boiling over by measuring the oats and water the night before. The oats soak up some of the water, leaving less to boil up in the morning.
The Fun Part
Plain oatmeal is perfectly satisfactory for a purist, but for everyone else it's a blank canvas that rewards creativity. Enrich the flavor of your oats in any number of ways. Start by substituting milk or half-and-half for part of the water for a richer cereal. Add a pinch of cinnamon or other spices to the pot as the oats cook, or a piece of vanilla bean for an extra luxurious flavor. Raisins and other dried fruit can go right into the cooker along with the oats. Other add-ins, from fresh fruit to nut butters and maple syrup, can be stirred in once the machine switches to "keep warm" or simply added at the table.
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Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.