the ultimate porridge

Don't put up with wallpaper paste when you could be creating creamy perfection. Rachel Walker explains how.

Last year, archaeologists found evidence of early civilisations cooking oats 30,000 years ago, making porridge one of the world's oldest dishes. As the millennia have slipped by, it has seen families through famine, been fed to patients and fuelled armies, but there's rarely any mention of it in early cookbooks. Historically, it's viewed as a staple rather than something of any culinary merit.

It's only recently that this ancient Anglo-Saxon breakfast has piqued interest, along with its global variants: Asian rice congee, African maize pap, American corn grits and eastern European kasha. Its nutritional benefits have made porridge the darling of the health-food brigade, as fuel to fill bellies first thing in the morning and slowly release energy throughout the day.

Yet, despite its heritage, porridge is often cooked badly. Generations have been put off by watery gruel, leathery-thick skin or the addition of too much salt. Its recent popularity has created something of a renaissance, though, propelling it into cookbooks and even onto restaurant menus. It's the perfect backdrop for a medley of colourful toppings or just a modest pinch of salt.

The classic recipe

serves 2, from 5 minutes

75g jumbo porridge oats
450m1 semi-skimmed milk
1 tbsp light muscovado sugar

Tip the oats and milk into a pan  and bring to a gentle simmer on a medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.

Continue stirring on a medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes, until the porridge reaches a creamy, dropping consistency. If needed, loosen with a splash more milk. Serve straightaway, piping hot.

Sprinkle the light muscovado sugar on top, or take inspiration from the toppings section

The Ratio
It's unusual for a recipe that contains so few ingredients to vary so wildly in the quantities used. Mary Berry uses a ratio of 1:8 ratio of porridge oats to milk; Larousse Gastronomique suggests 1:4; and Leon cookbook's basic porridge suggests 1:2.

The 1:2 recipe is too stodgy for my liking and the 1:8 porridge requires 5 minutes of lid-on cooking inside the simmering oven of Berry's Aga. The result is creamy porridge perfection, but it seems hardly worth putting on the oven specially.

I find that a 1:6 ratio is spot-on for a hob-cooked porridge. It thickens nicely on a medium-low heat and the liquid takes on a condensed-milk consistency - clinging to a wooden spoon and the sides of the pan.

As porridge is a morning dish, the last thing you need is to be squinting at digital scales. Find a familiar scoop to measure out the amounts. For example, I use 3 espresso cups of oats and 2 mugs of milk to make porridge for two people.

The liquid
Taste is subjective, and giving advice on the "proper" way to make porridge is akin to telling people how they should take their tea or coffee. Those who like sweet tea will probably prefer porridge made with whole milk, even a slosh of cream. Others will prefer water. Personally, I find whole milk too rich and water too bland. Semi-skimmed is, as Goldilocks would say, "just right". The explosion of milk alternatives has seen a flurry of recipes using coconut, almond, soy and rice milk. They divide opinion, but if you've developed a taste, then porridge is an excellent vehicle for cooking with them. Be careful of making direct substitutions, though - my experimentations showed nut milks to be thicker than cow's milk, and a 2:1 ratio of nut milk to water created the best consistency.

The method
The quickest way to cook porridge is to stir it on a medium-low hob for 5 minutes using a wooden spatula or, if you like doing things properly, the traditional stick like Scottish wooden spurtle. The more organised porridge maker might mix the oats and milk the night before and soak them in the fridge overnight. This saves time the next morning — especially as soaked oats cook more quickly.

A canny way to replicate Berry's Aga method is to bring the milk and oats to a simmer, then take it off the hob. Cover with a lid to trap the heat, then go on a dog walk, embark upon some morning ablutions or have a leisurely cup of tea. Twenty minutes later, put the porridge back on the hob. Stir it over a medium-low heat for a couple more minutes and add a splash of milk, if needed.

The twists
Different grains, from amaranth to millet or quinoa flakes, change the taste and texture. They often need soaking, longer cooking times and more liquid. For example, in Scandilicious, Signe Johansen has a recipe for pearl barley porridge in which the grains are soaked overnight, then cooked for 40 minutes.

Rather than sticking with a single grain, blends are a good option. Trine Hahnemann suggests mixing batches of grain blends, and her recommendation for equal amounts of rye, spelt and oats is a deliciously savoury, nutty combination.

Beware of recipes that are a twist too far, though. I tried millet with puréed sweetcorn, buckwheat with coconut cream and a particularly curious recipe for "sweet potato porridge" that wasn't really porridge at all. Call me old-fashioned but generally, I think oats arc nutritious and delicious enough.

The Norse Code
Look to Scandinavia for the newest - or should that be oldest? - porridge trends. Grod, a porridge cafe in the buzzy Norrebro district of Copenhagen, serves ollebrod, a porridge originally cooked by monks. It's a hoppy-sweet dish made from rye bread soaked in beer that the chefs at Grod top with stewed apple, skyr and hazelnuts. Rommegraut is another Nordic variant, where sour cream is added to the milk. It's tastier than it sounds and has a citric tang.

The Toppings
Well-made porridge needs nothing more than a dash of brown sugar or drizzle of honey or golden syrup for it to sing from the bowl, though many prefer salt. A diehard Scot would only stray from the latter if there were a wee dram of whisky to hand, which might be stirred into porridge on high days and holidays.

Spices such as ground cinnamon add big flavour, while toasted nuts or crumble toppings add texture. Fruit allows porridge to become a blank canvas for celebrating whatever is in season: apricot compote, poached plums and then, as summer turns into autumn, slices of baked apple. Make a decent-sized batch to carry you through the week and look out for new recipes to keep breakfast exciting.

Natasha Cornet's cinnamon and coconut-caramelised pears and pistachios and Darina Allen's apple stewed with rose-geranium syrup are current favourites. But the beauty of a basic dish such as porridge is that new seasons, new ingredients and new trends stop this staple from ever getting stale.