Oatmeal is a breakfast staple in our house. I usually make a big pot of steel-cut oats once a week and microwave a bowl for breakfast nearly every morning, topped with chopped walnuts, raisins, a drizzle of honey, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a pat of butter, and a dollop of peanut butter. It’s a filling, warming, and supremely satisfying meal that I never tire of.
But there’s another, more unexpected use for those weekly pots of oatmeal: I fold some of it into my bread dough to make sourdough oatmeal porridge bread. Not only do the coarse-grained steel-cut oats add a rustic texture and appearance to the bread, but the oatmeal itself supplies a moist, almost custard-like consistency to the crumb while miraculously keeping the loaf soft for days. It’s wonderful bread, whether used for toast, sandwiches, or to serve alongside a steaming bowl of soup. It’s so good, in fact, that I make a point to make extra oatmeal with each batch so I have some leftover to use in my breads.
These magical properties aren't unique to oatmeal: They’re common to all porridges — polenta, millet, Cream of Wheat, you name it. Porridge breads are a sub-category of breads I call "precooked-starch breads" because the one thing they all have in common is that the loaf contains some amount of starch that has been cooked before being added to the dough. And it’s the precooked starch that transforms the loaf, lending it a moist, plush texture, a longer shelf life, and easier-to-handle dough (relative to other doughs of similar hydration).
These benefits are all thanks to the water that gets bound up within the cooked starch. When water (or any other liquid) and a starch are heated together to around 150˚F, the starches gelatinize, meaning they swell and burst, leaching out molecules of amylose, which then link up to form a network that traps water within it. Once gelatinized, the starch-water mixture appears and behaves firmer and drier than it did before heating, even though the water remains present. (You see this when you use a roux to thicken gravy, add cornstarch to a sauce in a stir-fry, or make a tangzhong for breads like Japanese Milk Bread.)
In practical terms, this means that a bread containing a precooked starch contains “stealth” water — water that contributes to the final texture of the bread but doesn’t make the dough any wetter for being there. The greatest benefit to adding a cooked starch means you can increase the underlying hydration of a dough without making it so wet that it’s hard to work with. (Conversely: If you were to try to make a dough using an identical amount of water without first gelatinizing some of the starch and water, you’d likely end up with a soupy, sticky, challenging-to-shape mess.)
Most of my precooked-starch breads have more water in them compared to loaves that don’t contain any precooked starch and, all else being equal, the more water in a dough the moister the loaf, which accounts for the plush, custard-like texture of the crumb of these breads. The extra water also fends off staling, which means that these loaves stay soft far longer than others.
Precooked-starch breads come in three main categories
1) Tangzhong/yukone: First, there are those recipes in which you precook some of the flour and water (or milk) to form a paste that gets incorporated into the dough. This is a technique known as a tangzhong or yukone (or yudane) in Asian baking, one commonly used to make Japanese milk bread. It is also used in European baking, where it is referred to as a “flour scald.” In each of these, the precooked starch is made from two components already present in the formula, namely flour and water or milk.
2) Potato (and other vegetable) breads: Then there are those breads where you add a cooked, mashed starchy vegetable to the dough. Of these, potato breads are the most common example, though other starchy vegetables like sweet potato or squash are used as well. In this case, the water is already present in the starch prior to cooking it. In addition, the vegetable in question can bring some of its flavor and character to the loaf.
3) Porridge breads: And finally there are porridge breads, which are made by incorporating a cooked porridge — made from any sort of starchy grain or seed like rice, cornmeal, oats, millet, rye, or wheat — into a dough. Unlike potato breads the water is added separately, and unlike a tangzhong or flour scald the grain or seed is unmilled, coarsely milled, or cracked, so it adds texture to the bread. Like mashed starchy vegetables, porridge can carry its flavor and color into a loaf.
How to start adding porridge to your breads
Almost any fine-crumbed, rustic bread — such as artisanal sourdoughs or yeasted sandwich breads — can benefit from the addition of porridge. But here’s the thing about making porridge breads: You can’t just add porridge to a dough willy-nilly and hope for the best. Despite being a cooked-starch mixture, there’s still a ton of free water in porridge. So if you stir a significant amount into an already dialed-in bread formula, it can quickly send the dough into soup territory.
Here are the basic porridge bread guidelines I’ve discovered:
Don’t overdo it, or your crumb structure will suffer. There’s is a limit to how much porridge you can add to dough before the loaf will be unacceptably dense. Its presence and coarse texture interfere with gluten development during mixing and proofing, which impacts structure. (For more on gluten and how it provides structure in bread, see this guide to gluten.) I aim to keep the amount of uncooked grain from the porridge below 20% of the total flour weight, or the amount of porridge to no more than 30% of the weight of the loaf.
You’ll likely need to adopt strategies to promote strength in your dough and structure in the loaf because of the gluten-interfering effects of the porridge. Maybe opt for higher-protein bread flour instead of all-purpose. Mix longer if kneading the dough with a machine, or add folds when doing it by hand. Finally, you might need to extend your proof times to achieve the desired volume before baking.
Don’t over-hydrate your porridge, or it will carry too much water into the dough, leaving it hard to handle. For this reason, I always cook my porridge on the stiff side, set aside what I need for the bread, and only then thin the remainder of the porridge out for eating if necessary. The good news is that in most cases this just means following the directions on the package, which tend to recommend the minimum water-to-grain ratio. (In the case of steel-cut oats, that's 3:1 water to oats, by volume.)
Don’t over-hydrate your dough, either. When adding leftover porridge to a non-porridge bread recipe, it's best to err on the side of caution and hold back some of the remaining water in the dough until you’re sure it can handle it.
Or don’t try to wing it at all, and use a recipe. By far the easiest way to make a great porridge loaf is to start with a tried-and-tested recipe, and I’ve got just the one for you: Walnut and Raisin Porridge Bread.
This recipe has a bit more flair than my usual porridge breads, which are generally quite plain. Inspired by my daily breakfast porridge habit, I thought: Why not make a breakfast porridge bread, i.e., one embellished with the trimmings of a great bowl of oatmeal? To that end, I added butter, honey, walnuts, raisins, allspice, nutmeg, and orange zest. The result is a delicious and aromatic loaf that is like a bowl of steaming oatmeal in toast form. Slathered in butter and jam, this Walnut and Raisin Porridge Bread is as satisfying as my morning bowl of oats, plus simpler to serve and more portable to boot.
Cover photo by Liz Neily.