The oat (Avena sativa), sometimes referred to as the common oat, is a cereal grain plant producing seeds known as “groats”. When these are crushed, or forced through steel rollers, they become rolled oats, or oatmeal, or they can be ground down into a fine or coarse powder.
Scotland has traditionally been long associated with oats and using oatmeal in its cuisine (whereas in England for many century it was regarded more as feed for livestock, especially horses). Oats grew better in Scotland than wheat because of its low temperatures and high humidity. Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, famously described oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”.
The Scots traditionally soaked the oats overnight in salted water and then cooked them on a low heat in the morning until the mixture thickened. This became the basis of porridge.
Over the centuries, other culinary uses have been developed and it wasn’t until around the late 1800s that oats became an ingredient in confectionary, such as cookies. Apart from porridge and cookies, oats are now commonly used as a stuffing for poultry, or as a coating for Caboc cheese, used in Highland black pudding or as a major component of haggis, and in more recent times forming muesli and granola. They are often baked in bread. In parts of the English midlands, Staffordshire oatcakes are considered to be a component of a full English breakfast.
A variation on porridge is Brose, a Scots word for an uncooked form of oatmeal to which is added butter or cream to make a thicker, more filling mixture. This can also be varied by toasting the oatmeal beforehand, by stirring it around in a dry pot over a low heat until it gives off a slightly nutty fragrance.
Nutritionally, oats are a very good source of the fibre beta-glucan and are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are believed to have protective effects against heart disease, helping to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. The carbohydrates in oats are mostly composed of starch and fibre.