It sounds like a nonsense word straight out of “Jabberwocky,” but a spurtle (or “spirtle”) is a Scottish cooking implement with a history dating back to the 15th century, closely intertwined with that of porridge (we know it as “oatmeal”), the traditional staple food of Scotland. It’s a wooden dowel used to stir the oats during cooking to prevent the formation of lumps and to create a thicker, creamier porridge. The origins of the name are murky, although the Oxford English Dictionary points to the Latin spatula as a possible root.
Early versions of this instrument were made from a thin, straight branch of a tree, and usually turned from hardwoods such as beech, oak, chestnut, or ash. Scottish housewives who didn’t have a spurtle might have used a rung from a ladder.
They are typically about a foot long, an inch in diameter, and cylindrical, with one rounded end. Usually somewhat tapered at the stirring end, spurtles are often shaped at the handle end in the form of a thistle, a national symbol of Scotland.
As with all wooden cooking tools, treating a spurtle with mineral oil before use and after each wash will keep it in good condition and lengthen its lifespan.
According to tradition, only the right hand should be used for stirring porridge, and it should only be stirred in a clockwise direction, as stirring “widdershins” (or counter-clockwise) was believed to invoke the devil and bring bad luck.
Today this stirring stick lives on — at least in name — in the “Golden Spurtle”: the World Porridge-Making Championships held annually in the Scottish Highland village of Carrbridge, although the rules do not specifically require the use of a spurtle in the competition.
Of course, you don’t specifically need a spurtle to make porridge at home either — the handle of a wooden spoon will do just as well, but it is important to stir oats frequently during cooking to help disperse the starches, which makes for a thicker, creamier bowl of cereal.
Traditional Scottish Porridge
Makes 3 cups
The conventional cooking method is a lengthy endeavor requiring upwards of half an hour. Soaking the ingredients overnight allows you to have breakfast on the table within 15 minutes. Serve with individual bowls of milk, cream, or buttermilk for dunking each spoonful of porridge before eating. Porridge can also be served with brown sugar, jam, honey, syrup, or molasses. Other time-honored conventions: For reasons that have been lost to the mists of time, porridge must always be referred to as “they” or “them” and must be eaten while standing up, using a bone spoon. If you’ve only ever eaten rolled oats (the flattened grains used in “instant” or “quick-cook” versions), which can easily turn into a gummy paste when overcooked, you may be pleasantly surprised by the nutty flavor and chewy texture of steel-cut oats.
3 cups cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup steel-cut oats (known as “pinhead” oats in Scotland)
1 1/2 cups milk, cream, or buttermilk (optional, for serving)
- In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil.
- Stir in oats and boil for 1 minute.
- Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.
- The next morning, uncover, stir well, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
- Reduce heat to low and simmer 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently with a spurtle (or the handle of a wooden spoon), until the porridge is thick and creamy and the oats are tender.
- Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for a few minutes before serving.