"Ladeez aaand gentlemen! Rise and shine! The Great Gruel Test has begun," I announce in my best fight-night emcee voice.
"Can we just arise?" snaps Judy, one of my hand-picked taste testers. (Note to self: Next time reserve Judy for lunch or dinner testing.)
"How 'bout breakfast in bag?" pleads Melissa, who is renowned for her crack of noon starts and taste for fine fare.
"I hate eating this stuff," grumbles Shana for maybe, oh, the 30th time.
Meanwhile Daryl, an early riser, has opened several small numbered packets, and is dutifully pouring their dry contents into little bowls just like I'd instructed him. A man of few words, Daryl maintains stoic silence. My kind of early-morning tester.
"Yes, arising without shining is OK. Nope, no bag-side deliveries, and Shana, once again, thanks for coming," I reply to my panel of distinguished tasters. I doubt Betty Crocker or Sara Lee catches this much grief, but such is the life of a field food tester, more so when the food in question is instant hot breakfast cereal. (The enthusiasm ran decidedly higher during the last taste test when I pitted garlic fry bread against the likes of Thai chicken and peanuts.)
Not that I could blame my testers. The word "porridge" (a.k.a. glop, mush, or gruel) conjures one thought: oatmeal. And as seasoned outdoorspeople they've had more than their fill. Even though oatmeal may well be the perfect backcountry breakfast-hot, satisfying, infinitely adaptable-it doesn't set the taste buds a-twittering. My panelists would soon discover, though, that there are more ways to fill one's gullet in the wee morning hours than with oats alone. They would also find out that differences in taste, texture, and prep time among our 11 corn, wheat, rice, multigrain, and oat-based contestants would create clear breakfast champs...and chumps.
The test began with a shopping trip to our local supermarket in Gunnison, Colorado, where I was stymied by the variety in the hot cereals section. With names like "chocolate chip cookie," "peaches and cream," and "S'mores," my choices sounded more like ice cream flavors than fixin's for a hearty breakfast. I selected five brands of oatmeal, one cream of wheat, one multigrain cereal, and one grits, then bolted for the door. "Instant" in all cases was defined as "add boiling water and wait 1 minute." I also picked two almost-instant hot cereals (add water and wait 5 minutes) from Fantastic Foods. These come in paper cups into which you add boiling water. As a control, I threw in a bag of rolled oats. Total: 11 cereals, 5 types of grains.
Our proving ground would be high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, mid-October, after a cold night. Each panelist received a piece of paper numbered 1 through 11 and a plastic spoon. Assignment: Taste and rate each cereal (its true identity cleverly concealed).
The "real" oatmeal was ready in 7 minutes. All of the instant cereals quickly absorbed the hot water poured over them, allowing us to turn off the stove during "cooking" time, which meant the instant cereals used very little fuel. At clean-up time-a job, incidentally, left to me-the bowls and spoons washed easily with a dip in hot water. The rolled oats, despite attention during cooking, had stuck firmly to the pot and required a good soaking and aggressive scrubbing.
n Instant oatmeal, despite its nutritional value and wide assortment of flavors, continues to be a food that appeals to some and nauseates others. Scores were all over the place and only a few samples pleased everybody. A tie for highest honors was shared by Quaker Honey Nut Oatmeal and Safeway Maple & Brown Sugar Oatmeal.
n Quaker Instant Grits rated a surprising 2.9 out of a possible 5 points among our panel of Coloradans, even though we tested the Southern delicacy plain. When butter and cheese powder were added, two of the five tasters thought it the best breakfast.
n Rolled oats, plain instant oatmeal, and plain instant cream of wheat were tasted without additional ingredients, which accounts for their low ratings. When we added sugar and raisins to the rolled oats, it turned out to be everybody's favorite oatmeal.
Oatmeal and other breakfast mushes are like blank canvases; how you prepare them is limited only by your imagination. The list of possible add-ins starts with some combination of the following: raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots, dried peaches, figs, slivered almonds, walnuts, powdered banana chips (put them through the coffee grinder first), powdered milk, brown sugar, fresh berries, jams, jellies, butter, chocolate chips, cocoa, the list goes on.
When you grow tired of oatmeal served in porridge form, try one of the following recipes.