In the beginning, there were groats.
Actually, in the beginning, you have to grow some oats. I don’t know about that part. I do know that at some point you end up with groats, which are whole oats, shaped like grains of rice. You could cook them into porridge at this point, but you’d get something more like risotto than breakfast.
So oats are generally processed further. They can be rolled between big metal rollers to make the familiar Quaker oats in a paper can. If they’re rolled ultra-thin, those are quick-cooking oats. They can also be rolled relatively thick, and then you get something like Snoqualmie Falls or Bob’s Red Mill (these are both Northwest brands; I don’t know if they’re sold nationally, but if not, you probably have a similar local product). Thick rolled oats aren’t too bad.
At the top of the oat heap, though, are steel-cut oats, which are just groats sliced into small chunks. There are two problems with steel-cuts, though: they’re expensive and they take a long time to cook.
I’m going to put on my consumer advocate hat (“consumer advocate” is such a nice way of saying “cheapskate,” isn’t it?) and offer the answer to the first problem. The most common brand of steel-cut oats is McCann’s Irish Oatmeal. It comes in a white can and it won a prize for uniformity of granulation in 1893. I have no reason to believe that McCann’s granulation is any less uniform today, but the price is outrageous–sometimes as much as $8 for a 30-ounce can.
Instead, head to your local health food store, the hippier the better, and look in the bulk bins. Mine carries organic steel-cut oats for 89 cents a pound. Alternatively, try Trader Joe’s, which sells McCann’s but also another brand of steel-cut oats that goes for about $1.25/pound.
As for the cooking time, McCann’s has a page of tips, but none of them really seems like much of a timesaver unless you can remember to soak the oats the night before.
Instead, use Alton Brown’s recipe. Part of the experience of eating oats, it seems to me, is in the anticipation, watching them bubble for half an hour before you even get to taste.
This morning at breakfast I gave Iris a little bowl of brown sugar so she could sprinkle it on her oats. Naturally, she ate the sugar with her spoon.