A Potted History Of Porridge
Image Credit: PEXELS

FOR MANY AROUND THE WORLD, porridge makes an excellent choice for breakfast. Its ubiquitous status as a breakfast staple means that porridge is often redolent with memories of childhood for those eating it. It is warm, filling, nutritious, and for the most part unchanging. Its very reliability may also be comforting in unsettling times; as actor Stephen Fry once declared: “Nothing in this world is as it seems. Except, possibly, porridge”.

Although most commonly used to describe a breakfast dish made with oats boiled with water or milk, any grain so cooked in liquid can be described as porridge. And the dish’s history is deep! 

Porridge has an ancient lineage as a staple food, including in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In 2015, National Geographic magazine reported on an analysis of a Palaeolithic pestle from 33,000 years ago, revealing it was dusted with oat starch. This suggests ancient humans were grinding oats into flour — at odds with the popular Paleo diet trend that holds humans weren’t eating grains then. The oat remnants on the pestle, found in an Italian cave, may have been cooked into a porridge. In her book, A History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat writes that early peoples might also have made something like thick pancakes by cooking various porridge-y mixtures on hot stones placed on a fire’s embers.


Gruel is a thin porridge, which was served in English workhouses in the 19th century. Oliver Twist pleads “Please Sir, I want some more” in Charles Dickens’ second novel. The writer’s description led to gruel being thought of as unappetising. Yet, gruel also features as a nutritious food in many 19th century cookbooks. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852), Queen Victoria’s chef Charles Elmé Francatelli recommends restorative gruel made with oats or barley.

Further, the 1893 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Every-day Cookery and Housekeeping Book boils just one tablespoon of oats in a pint of water to make a “dainty” dish for the ill. Mrs Beeton notes this digestible liquid can be flavoured with lemon peel or a little grated nutmeg. She notes some invalids will appreciate the addition of a good measure of sherry or port.


The consumption of porridge in British jails led to the 1950s slang “doing porridge” for serving a custodial sentence. (This, in turn, also inspired the name of a classic 1970s British comedy.)

Oats are traditionally associated with Scotland, although barley and a grain called “bere” were originally introduced by the Vikings. Today, around the world, oats are grown for animal feed and human consumption. Although some recent reports have highlighted the possible presence of pesticides and weedkillers in widely marketed oat products, these have been refuted by producers.

In the late 1990s, savoury oaten porridge made gastronomic headlines with Heston Blumenthal’s Snail Porridge from his Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant. The dish of oats cooked in a stock flavoured with ham and snails, served with more snails and garlic butter and topped with a fennel salad, became one of his signature dishes.


The most commonly available oat varieties are “rolled”, “quick” (or “quick cooking”) and “instant”.

Rolled oats are oat kernels that are steamed, then rolled. As rolled oats can be eaten raw (as in natural muesli), they are very forgiving in terms of cookery. Soaking rolled oats before boiling them reduces cooking time.

Quick cooking oats have been steamed for longer, rolled more thinly and/or chopped into smaller pieces. Instant oats are more highly processed, so that they can be prepared by just adding boiling water or heating briefly in the microwave.

Do try out these recipes:

1. Traditional Porridge

Mix 1 cup of rolled oats with 3 cups of cold water in a saucepan. Add a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, and then turn the heat down. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes, stirring more as it thickens. If too thick, loosen with a splash of boiling water. If too thin, boil a couple more minutes. Top with golden syrup or brown sugar and serve with cold milk. You can also top with fresh fruits, nuts and yoghurt or honey.

2. Microwave Porridge

Follow the proportions above. Depending on the microwave’s wattage, cook (covered) on high for around 4 to 5 minutes, stirring halfway. Care needs to be taken to use a tall enough bowl so that the porridge does not boil over.

3. Savoury Porridge

Oats are cooked as above, using salted water or vegetable or chicken stock, and treated as any other kind of soft grain (like polenta or risotto), with vegetables and other ingredients added before serving. Explore ingredients like avocado, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, lemon juice, tahini and more.

Donna Lee Brien is a professor at CQUniversity Australia. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished under the Creative Commons Licence.