Oats are domesticated cereal grass grown primarily for its edible starchy grains.
They are annual plants and often reach 1.5 metres (5 feet) in height. The long leaves have rounded sheaths at the base and a membranous ligule (small appendage where the leaf joins the stem). The flowering and fruiting structure, or inflorescence, of the plant is made up of numerous branches bearing florets that produce the caryopsis, or one-seeded fruit.
Oats are widely cultivated in the temperate regions of the world and are second only to rye in their ability to survive in poor soils.
While oats are suitable for human consumption as oatmeal and rolled oats, one of the most common uses is as livestock feed.
Like wheat and barley and millet, oats grow wild all around West Asia. Probably early gatherers picked oats and ate them. But when people first started farming wheat and barley, about 12,000 BC, they didn’t like oats as much. They thought of oats as a nuisancey weed that was always getting into their yummy wheat and barley.
Oldest archeological findings of oat grains date from Ancient Egypt and were found among remains of the 12th Dynasty i.e. they are some 4 millennia old. But these oats were probably weeds and not cultivated plants. Oldest cultivated oats were found in caves in Switzerland and they date from Bronze Age.
Very likely the main use of these oats was to make beer or ale, just as people did with barley. People also sometimes ground up the oats into oat flour, to make bread, but because oats don’t have any gluten, they only made flat bread, like pita bread.
Oat that are cultivated were also mentioned for the first time in literature in the 1st century AD. We don’t know where the plant originated but scientists think that it originated from Asia Minor because there exist many different subspecies of oats so it is the most likely point of origin.
By the time of the Roman Empire – about 100 AD – people were also growing and eating oats in Italy. The Romans thought of oats as a kind of yucky food, like millet, good for horses, but also something people could eat if there wasn’t anything else.
By the Middle Ages, people ate oats alongside rye and barley in Britain, especially in Scotland and Ireland, and the Vikings kept on eating oats. In Poland and Russia people ate more rye bread and less oats.
Scottish settlers brought oats to North America in 1602 AD, because northern North America was also cold and wet, like Scandinavia. Native Americans didn’t eat oats – they stuck to corn – but oats moved westward across the northern part of North America with the settlers.
In America, people mostly grew oats for horses to eat, so when people stopped keeping very many horses – when cars and trucks became popular, in the 1920s – they also grew a lot less oats. The end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 AD also made it easier to grow wheat across North America.
Today, oats have numerous uses in foods – most commonly, they are rolled or crushed into oatmeal, or ground into fine oat flour. Oatmeal is chiefly eaten as porridge, but may also be used in a variety of baked goods, such as oatcakes, oatmeal cookies, and oat bread. Oats are also an ingredient in many cold cereals, in particular muesli and granola. Oats are also used for production of milk substitutes (“oat milk”).
In Scotland, a dish was made by soaking the husks from oats for a week, so the fine, floury part of the meal remained as sediment to be strained off, boiled, and eaten. Oats are also widely used there as a thickener in soups, as barley or rice might be used in other countries.
Porridge is a food commonly eaten as a breakfast cereal dish, made by boiling ground, crushed or chopped starchy plants—typically grain—in milk. It is often cooked or served with added flavourings such as sugar, honey, (dried) fruit or syrup to make a sweet cereal, or it can be mixed with spices, meat or vegetables to make a savoury dish. It is usually served hot in a bowl, depending on its consistency. Oat porridge, or oatmeal, is one of the most common types of porridge. Gruel is a thinner version of porridge.
Muesli is a cold oatmeal dish based on rolled oats and ingredients such as grains, nuts, seeds and fresh or dried fruits. Muesli was traditionally prepared with milk or cream, a squeeze of citrus juice, often with a sweetener such as honey, and either left overnight to soften or eaten immediately. Yoghurt or other milk products are now commonly added to packaged and homemade muesli recipes.
Oats are the most commonly produced grain in Finland so it makes sense that bread based on oats will be very popular, although not as popular as rye breads.
An oatcake is a type of flatbread similar to a cracker or biscuit, or in some versions takes the form of apancake. They are prepared with oatmeal as the primary ingredient, and sometimes include plain or wholemeal flour as well. Oatcakes are cooked on a griddle or baked in an oven.
Parkin is a gingerbread cake traditionally made with oatmeal and black treacle, which originated in northern England. Often associated with Yorkshire. it is very widespread and popular elsewhere, notably in Lancashire. Parkin is baked to a hard cake but with resting becomes moist and even sometimes sticky. In Hull and East Yorkshire, it has a drier, more biscuit-like texture than in other areas. Parkin is traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November, but is also enjoyed throughout the winter months. It is baked commercially throughout Yorkshire, but is mainly a domestic product in other areas.