bob's red mill

For nearly a year now, I’ve been eating oatmeal every morning for breakfast. I’ve developed a fail-safe method, which — quite embarrassingly — involves quick oats and a microwave. I was on a mission to find out the perfect way to cook oats, and I was lucky to stumble upon Dennis Gilliam of Bob’s Red Mill, whose fascination and enthusiasm for oats are contagious.

Who is Dennis Gilliam?

Dennis has loved oatmeal for years, but he wasn’t always in the industry of making and selling it. He had made his career in the typesetting industry, as the foreman of a typesetting shop. Bob Moore had moved to Milwaukie, Oregon and opened a stone-ground flour mill. They had met at meetings for a community service group, and the year that Dennis was club president, “he could definitely see my style.”

“During the course of that year, [Bob] suffered an arson fire that almost put him out of business. He approached me…”

And the rest is history. “The typesetting world was changing, and I was ready for a change. He wanted me to come on board and help him take the business nation-wide.” Today, Dennis is the head of marketing and sales for Bob’s Red Mill, and he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to oatmeal.

How to Cook Oats

“I love the flavor profile of oats,” Dennis says. “They just have this wonderful flavor profile.”

He knows, however, that many people are scarred by memories of oats that were cooked improperly. “Well, if you’re going to boil oats within a second of their natural life, they’re going to taste like wallpaper paste,” he says. “Most people tend to like them a lot more al dente.”

He set out to figure out what people don’t like about oats, and then he discovered a way to cook them that is much more appealing to the palate.

“I’m disappointed and sick and tired of the fact that people say they don’t like cooked cereal because it’s so gooey,” he says. “Well, for goodness sake, it’s all in the way you cook it!”

Of course, he’s right, and over the course of our conversation, I was schooled in the ins and outs of the right way to cook oats, which all boil down to one thing: personal preference. While Dennis offered a world of sound advice, he was quick to let me know that everyone likes their oats cooked differently. “You can experiment with cooking time and shorten it to the point where they are as done as you like them,” he says. “Cut the water and start cooking, adding water until you have it the way you like it.”

Varieties of Oats

Each different cut of oats requires a different cooking time. “It’s all the same oat,” he says. “But you can have the whole oat groat, which is called the ‘berry’ for wheat or barley. It has to be machine-hulled, but you can cook the whole oat groat.” The whole groat needs to cook for about 45 minutes, but there’s a “pop-in-your-mouth” sensation with these whole oats.

“If that’s your favorite, the night before, while you’re watching Grimm or Antiques Road Show, you put a pot on and set the timer. Then you can keep them in the fridge and heat them in the microwave,” he says.

“To shorten the cooking time, we cut it with steel blades into about 3-4 pieces,” Dennis continues. This is the steel-cut oat, which cooks in about 10-12 minutes. 

Even smaller, you have the stone ground oat, which turns into a real meal. “There’s nothing removed and nothing added, but now it’s a mealy texture and it cooks much faster. Those are traditionally pretty creamy when eaten as a breakfast cereal.”

“If you take the steel cut pieces and roll them, you get either – depending on how thin – the instant oats (which are tiny, because we roll a smaller piece to start with) or the quick oats (sometimes done from the whole groat), rolled very, very thin.” These are also sold as rolled oats, and can be cooked with just a bit of hot water from the tap. Dennis shared a technique one woman suggested to him, where steel-cut oats are combined with a bit of cold water in the fridge over night, topped with yogurt and grated apple in the morning and eaten cold.

Finally, you get to “regular” old-fashioned oats or thick rolled oats, which are Dennis’ personal favorite. “I shorten the cooking time and reduce the amount of water called for,” he says. “Regular old-fashioned rolled oats are served in hotels and food-service lines and are completely ruined. It’s just nauseous the way it’s served in most of America.” For an “al-dente” breakfast cereal instead of one with the texture of wallpaper paste, Dennis recommends cutting the cooking times marked on the package by a third and adding less water.

Dressing Up Your Oats

Once you’ve decided which kind of oat you like best, the fun part begins: Salt or not? Water or milk? Toppings? The world is your oyster. As for Dennis, “I don’t cook it with salt. Most people do, but I’ve just developed a palate that lets me get by with no salt.”

I told him about my microwave method, and I was surprised to hear that he didn’t think it was silly at all. The important thing, to Dennis, is letting people know that making oatmeal in the morning doesn’t have to be a difficult thing; everyone has time to throw together oats in the morning. “If they say ‘I don’t have time’… well, that’s because they don’t have this shortcut.”

Dennis’ method is simple enough. “I always do them stovetop. I bring the water to a boil, add the oats, stir them, put the lid on and turn the heat off, and then I just walk away.”

Other methods he’s heard of but hasn’t tried are doing oats in the slow cooker or in thermoses. “People tell me that they put the oats in a thermos and pour a little hot water in, and when you get to work, put them in a bowl.”

“I’m okay with my method,” he says. “And varying the toppings gives me so much variety.”

As far as toppings are concerned, he suggests any of the following: toasted slivered almonds, raisins, almonds, currants, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon or cardamom, cacao nibs, dried cranberries or dried cherries. “You could also put any fresh fruit on… well, I wouldn’t put grapefruit on, but if you had some ripe bananas… But none of the citrus fruits. I dont think makes a pleasant accoutrement.”

“There’s also all this new nutritional buzz about chia seeds. It’s the perfect place to add two tablespoons of chia seeds.”

Alternate Options to Oats

Bob’s Red Mill is always developing new products and rolls out about six new products a year, including a variety of other options you can try instead of oats, like a Swiss Style Meusli, including five different rolled grains. “All I do is put some yogurt and grated apple on it,” Dennis says. “I don’t cook it at all.”

They also do an oat bran, which is made of the outer layer of the groat that is shaved off. The resulting cereal has a very creamy texture.

Bob’s Red Mill’s gluten-free oats are an interesting addition to the product line. While oats are naturally gluten free, most are transported in trucks that also transport wheat, and the resulting product is no longer gluten-free. “We went up into Seskatchewan and located a growing group of 200 oat-growing farmers who never rotate wheat and who transport in oat trucks.” The resulting gluten-free oats, available in oat bran, steel-cut, regular, quick and thick rolled oats,” are verified by gluten-free testing at various stages of the process.

Bob’s Red Mill also sells a kamut cereal, a 10-grain cereal and farro. Oats are usually prepared with a 2-1 water-to-oats ratio; grains are 3-1, so they’re easy to do with Dennis’ cooking technique. 

There are also four different granolas, oat flour which can be used in gluten-free baking mixes and Scottish oat cakes, which can be made with stone-ground Scottish oatmeal. “It’s shaped like a cookie but only has a small bit of sugar in it. It’s better with jam or cheese on it… it’s not meant to be eaten like a cookie.”

World Champions of Porridge-Making

Steel-cut oats are called pinhead oats in Scotland, and in 2009, Bob’s Red Mill entered and won the World Championship of Porridge-Making with pinhead oats in Carrbridge. The prize? A Golden Spurtle.

“A spurtle is a traditional Scottish porridge-stirring implement. A stick, if you will, that’s about 12-14 inches long,” says Dennis. “We’ve been having a custom woodmaker make them… we sell a lot of spurtles.”

This year, as they did last year, Bob’s Red Mill is hosting a competition on YouTube to find the person who will represent them at the Championship this year. The top three candidates are flown to Portland for an in-house competition.

If it seems like Dennis and the rest of the team are serious about oats… well, they are. But in a time where people hardly have time to buy a ready-made granola bar for breakfast, there’s something nice about taking a bit of time to make a delicious, healthy, all-natural breakfast.

“I need to sit for 3 hours and send text messages on my iPhone,” Dennis jokes. “I dont have time to toast oats!” In reality, Dennis and I agree that the few extra minutes it takes to put your oats in a pot (or in the microwave!) makes a world of difference.

“It’s important,” Dennis says. “I think it helps one regain control that is too often flitting away through wasted motion.”

Oatmeal Recipe Ideas

For more ideas with what to do with your oatmeal, try some of our favorite recipes!

Image: Bob’s Red Mill