Originally an unwanted weed, oats thrived between the rows of wheat and barley and, when discovered, was pulled up and burned. Although oats was eaten in Neolithic times and during the Bronze Age, it was generally used as food for the horses of Central Asia and the colder areas of Russia. Its history is vague, but those who give the origin of oats as the Middle East or Africa are probably incorrect since the plant thrives best in colder, damper climates and under conditions inhospitable to most grains, especially wheat and barley. It is speculated that the arrival of oats came with raiders, merchant caravans, invaders, and plunderers, along with their horses and the food carried to feed them. The plant proliferated in the colder areas of Europe, especially in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. Since horses were big eaters, the arrival of oats made the job of feeding them easier; and, because farmers needed horses to help with the work, more oats were sown. As a plus, farmers soon learned that oats was a good rotation crop.
Cultivation of oats appears as a relatively late-comer to agriculture, dating about 1000 BCE in central Europe. In the wild, the small grains are borne singly on straggly seed heads and drop off as soon as they are ripe. This is a useful feature for the propagation of a weed, but not for the harvest of a food crop. Therefore, since the Romans and Greeks considered it “barbarian food”, cultivation did not come in earnest for some time.
It was not long before oats found its way into the culinary realm. The grain has excellent nutritional qualities, complete with proteins, B vitamins, calcium, unsaturated fats, and fiber. It is a favourite, used as a thickener or an extender, in recipes; but nothing beats a hot bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning, according to the Irish. For the Scots, no celebration or cookbook would be complete without a recipe for haggis, a traditional and substantial winter dish. The Welsh have their “brewis” (an oatmeal broth) and “siot” (oatcakes in buttermilk), while the Swiss have “muesli”. Recently, the American demand for oats increased during the hype of a “heart-health” diet. Studies have shown, however, that oatmeal has no more effect in lowering cholesterol than any other grain, but that an overall change in diet is the main contributing factor. Oat bran is the outer protective coating of the kernel and a good source of silicon, a trace element needed for healthy joints and normal bone growth. It also supplies a water-soluble form of dietary fiber called “beta glucan”. Like cellulose, oat fiber differs chemically from other grain brans which are not water-soluble and does not produce the bloating and diarrhea typical of wheat bran. The soluble fiber reduces the rate of glucose absorption and insulin production after a meal, making it an excellent food for diabetics. Oatmeal is a better choice as a breakfast item – as long as one stays away from the instant or overly sugared, something Europeans have known for centuries. Thus ends the cinderella story of the transformation of a weed into a nutritional dynamo.
Forms of Oats include the following:
Whole Oat Groats: They are untreated, natural, oats with only the outermost inedible chaff or hull removed. The basic nutritional value is left intact. Groats can be cooked whole or ground, and are excellent when mixed with wheat berries. Since they are a whole grain, they do take longer to cook.
Steel-cut Oats: They are sometimes called Scottish or Irish oats. Natural unrefined oat groats are cut into two or three pieces to make tasty cereals. They are processed with a small amount of heat by the steel blades and, therefore, lose a bit of their B vitamins. They do require a fairly long cooking time; but, if they are toasted first, the time is shortened while adding a nice toasty crunch. To toast, preheat the oven to 350°F and whirl the grain in a blender just to break it down a bit. Spread it out on a cookie sheet and toast for about twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool and store in an airtight container.
Rolled Oats: They are large separate flakes that have first been steamed and then flattened. These are called old-fashioned rolled oats. The “quick” or “instant” types have been processed further and then heat-treated for faster cooking. As a result, they have substantially less nutritive value than the old-fashioned rolled oats. And, to add insult to injury, they are more expensive than the less processed type. Rolled oats, or oat flakes, were developed in America by the Quaker Oat Company in 1877.
Oat Bran: It is the outer covering of the whole oat groat. Although healthful, it has been overrated in its abilities.
Oat Flour: It is the finely ground whole oat groat which also contains much of the bran. The flour is almost as nutritious as the whole grain itself, depending on how it was ground. The more heat applied during the grinding, the more nutrients that are lost. This flour has very little gluten ,so is not one that can be made into bread; but it does combine nicely with other flours to make pancakes or some quick breads.