Ode to Oatmeal: Your Guide to the Beloved Breakfast Staple
Whether it’s a bowl of overnight steel-cut oats, batch of oatmeal raisin muffins, or slice of comforting oatmeal pie, versatile oatmeal comes in many forms. Yes, oatmeal is the quintessential healthy hot breakfast, but more often that not, it doesn’t get the love it so rightfully deserves. From rolled oats to steel-cut oats to Scottish oats, oatmeal is a nutrient-dense whole grain (an ancient whole grain!) that’s widely available, affordable, and easy to cook. And while oatmeal may not carry the superfood appeal that quinoa or teff does, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Oatmeal’s humble nature makes it an approachable, highly nutritious food that everyone can love. Without further ado, our ultimate guide to this delicious breakfast staple has everything you need to know, including common oatmeal types, how to make oatmeal, oatmeal nutrition, healthy oatmeal recipes, and more.
What Is Oatmeal?
Oatmeal is a type of porridge made from milled, steel-cut, or rolled oat grains. An ancient cereal grain, oats come in many forms—from rolled oats to instant oatmeal to whole oat groats—but all start as seeds of the oat plant. When cooked, oatmeal typically has a subtle, sweet flavor and a creamy, sometimes chewy, texture. It’s usually served warm straight from the saucepan, but oats that are soaked overnight are often eaten at room temperature.
Oats are believed to have been cultivated as early as 1000 B.C. by the Greeks and Romans, who primarily harvested them for animal feed. While oats have been a staple form of nourishment in Scotland for centuries, oatmeal’s presence as a mainstream breakfast food is relatively recent. The Quaker Oats Company helped propel oatmeal’s popularity in the U.S. by pioneering faster-cooking varieties such as rolled oats in the late 1800s, and instant oats in 1966.
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Today, oatmeal is identified by its degree of processing, of which can affect its texture, flavor, and cook time. Generally, the more processed the oat, the faster it will cook. Less processed varieties such as steel-cut oats and whole oat groats tend to retain their flavor and texture more. Ultimately, choosing the right oat comes down to time and personal preference. Here are five basic varieties of oats you may see on grocery store shelves.
Whole Oat Groats
Also called whole oat kernels, whole oat groats are the purest, least processed type of oats. During processing, the husk is removed but the bran and germ remain. When cooked, whole oat groats have a chewy texture similar to farro and a nutty, sweet taste. Due to their minimal processing, this variety can take up to an hour to cook. Simmer them overnight in a slow-cooker to make an easy and hearty breakfast in the morning.
Steel cut oats, or Irish oats, are toasted whole oat groats that have been cut into smaller pieces by a steel blade. As a result, steel-cut oats cook in about half the time of whole oat groats. Steel-cut oatmeal packs a chewy, creamy texture and subtle, sweet flavor. Overnight steel-cut oats in Mason jars are a perfect grab-and-go breakfast in the morning—top them with fresh fruit, nuts, honey, and more.
This type of oatmeal is made using the traditional Scottish method where oats are stone-ground instead of rolled or cut with steel. Compared to steel-cut oats, which resemble broken rice, uncooked Scottish oats are more finely ground. Their smooth texture makes them perfect for baking into breads, muffins, and more. When cooked, Scottish oats have a creamy consistency similar to porridge. We recommend Bob's Red Mill Organic Scottish Oatmeal—find it at your local grocery store or on Amazon.
Also called old-fashioned rolled oats, rolled oats are made from steamed, rolled, and flattened whole oat groats. As a result, they cook much faster than steel-cut oats or Scottish oats. Rolled oats have a characteristic flat, disc shape and a soft, fluffy texture when cooked. They’re also the most common variety you’ll find at the grocery store and are often used in baking.
When you take rolled oats and steam them for even longer, you get instant oatmeal. As the most processed type of oat, instant oatmeal cooks in seconds and has a smooth, creamy consistency and mild flavor. First made popular by the Quaker Oats Company, instant oatmeal is often believed to be less nutritious. While the nutrition of instant oatmeal is actually similar to other oats, it's more likely to contain added sugars and other additional flavorings. So, instead of buying blueberry-flavored instant oatmeal, stick with plain oatmeal (try Quaker Oats Original Instant Oatmeal) and top it with fresh blueberries.
Nutrition in Oatmeal
Is oatmeal good for you? You bet. It’s no secret that oatmeal has been linked to a slew of impressive health benefits, most notably a healthy heart. Oatmeal is rich in beta-glucan, a powerful soluble fiber that has been linked to reduced cholesterol levels, a stronger immune system, and more stable blood glucose levels. Oatmeal is a key component of a high fiber diet, which can help lower cholesterol and may even prevent chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight, starting your day with a bowl of oatmeal can help you feel full and reduce the chance of overeating.
When choosing oatmeal, keep in mind that less processed varieties such as steel-cut oatmeal will give you the most bang for your buck nutritionally. However, this doesn’t mean that more processed types such as instant oats are a poor choice. All varieties of oatmeal are whole grains and have relatively small deviations in calories, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, and protein.
Oatmeal Nutrition Information
1 serving = ½ cup cooked rolled oats (117g)
Source: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Oatmeal is a smart low-calorie healthy breakfast, especially if you’re trying to shed a few pounds. One serving delivers an impressive amount of nutrients and energy for only 98 calories. If you’re watching your calorie intake, the protein and fiber in oatmeal helps you feel full and can aid in preventing excessive snacking in between meals.
Oatmeal is a good source of plant-based protein, which helps you feel fuller for longer, repairs muscle, and regulates metabolism. One serving packs 3 grams of protein, or 6 percent of your recommended daily intake. Oatmeal is not a complete protein because it does not contain all nine essential amino acids. However, you can easily boost your oatmeal’s protein by topping it with ingredients such as a fried egg, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, or by cooking it with skim milk or soy milk.
Oatmeal packs a healthy dose of energizing carbohydrates, with ½ cup supplying 14 grams or 5 percent of your recommended daily intake. These are not the “bad” refined carbs found in sugary, processed foods—oatmeal is full of complex carbohydrates, which provide your body with energy over a long period of time. A bowl of oatmeal in the morning packs essential all-day energy, whether it’s at the gym, office, or the home.
How to Cook Oatmeal
Whether steel-cut oatmeal, instant oatmeal, or whole oat groats, oatmeal needs just one simple ingredient to cook—liquid. Most healthy oatmeal recipes call for water, but you can also use milk or even chicken stock. Cooking steel-cut oats—or any other type of oat—is easy. Whether you use the stovetop or the slow-cooker to make your oatmeal, you won’t get very far without the right kitchen tools. Use dry measuring cups to measure out your oats and liquid measuring cups for your liquid. Always read the package label to make sure you’re using the proper oats to liquid ratio. Below, we break down the best oatmeal cooking methods to help you find the right one for you.
Making oatmeal on the stovetop is one of the easiest and most reliable ways to cook it. Simply simmer your oats in their liquid in a saucepan, stirring occasionally until thickened. Check the package label to verify the cook time, as it will vary depending on the type of oats. Don’t slack on your stirring duties—because the oatmeal cooks over direct heat, it can burn more easily than it would with other methods.
Cooking oatmeal in the microwave is an easy shortcut, but it can often end in a goopy mess of exploded oats. Protect your microwave by cooking your oatmeal in short 30 to 40 second spurts or by decreasing the power level. While this method is perfect for faster-cooking varieties such as instant oats and some types of old-fashioned rolled oats, we don’t recommend it for steel-cut, whole oat groats, or Scottish oats.
If you’re short on time in the morning, but still want a hot breakfast, slow-cooker oatmeal is the perfect solution. Simply pour your oats and liquid into the well, then let your slow-cooker work its magic work overnight. The long cook time also allows the flavors of any aromatics you add to develop and infuse—try dried fruit, cinnamon stick, or vanilla bean.
This clever make-ahead oatmeal method is perfect for steel-cut oatmeal and other varieties that take longer to cook. You can make overnight oats straight in the container you eat them from, such as a bowl or Mason jar. Overnight steel-cut oats can be enjoyed as is at room temperature, but you can also pop it in the microwave if cold oatmeal doesn't appeal to you.
Oatmeal Recipes & Ideas
Put your oatmeal IQ to the test with our mouthwatering oatmeal recipes. You’ll find both sweet and savory recipes including oatmeal cookies, oatmeal muffins, oatmeal pie, and even a veggie-topped oatmeal bowl. When baking with oats, be careful about substitutions. For example, using steel-cut oats over old-fashioned rolled oats may affect the outcome of the recipe. Below, discover easy, delicious, and healthy ways to work more oatmeal into your diet.
These addictive oatmeal cookies are completely gluten-free, thanks to a nutritious trio of rolled oats, ripe banana, and peanut butter. Semi-sweet chocolate chips and roasted sunflower seeds make for a salty-sweet crunch in every bite.
These delicious oatmeal muffins make a perfect grab-and-go breakfast or quick energizing snack. Mashed bananas and a load of delicious add-ins such as rolled oats, grated carrots, raisins, and pecans in the batter gives these muffins plenty of flavor and texture. And, they’re also gluten-free.
With 6.5 grams of fiber, this steel-cut oats recipe will serve as your go-to power breakfast. Enjoy it as precious all-day fuel after a morning workout. Feel free to mix up the simple mixed berry compote, too—swap in whatever fresh or frozen berries you have on hand such as blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries.
What happens when you take two much-loved pies—oatmeal pie and pecan pie—and combine them into one, ultra-luscious dessert? This fall-inspired pie is truly the best of both worlds, boasting creamy oats and nutty pecans. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it’s even more divine.
Think of baked oatmeal as a cross between traditional oatmeal and oatmeal bars. The addition of eggs to the batter makes for a creamy consistency similar to bread pudding. Serve it warm from the oven as a breakfast casserole and store leftovers in the refrigerator for quick breakfasts later in the week. Baked oatmeal keeps quite well, and can be easily reheated in the microwave.
Savory oatmeal may sound unconventional, but when you introduce delicious toppings like kale, avocado, and a fried egg, things start to get interesting. This breakfast staple totally works as an energizing lunch or nutrient-packed dinner—simply treat it like you would quinoa, farro, or any other whole grain. Here, we call for old-fashioned rolled oats, but if you prefer a crunchier texture, try steel-cut oats.
Davidson, Alan. Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Oldways Whole Grains Council, wholegrainscouncil.org
Duyff MS, RDN, FAND, CFCS, Roberta L. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide, Revised & Updated 5th Edition. New York: Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017.