Why Oats Aren't Just for Breakfast—Plus 3 Ways to Cook Them

Rolled, steel-cut, and instant oats are all healthy and delicious choices for breakfast and beyond.

different types of oats
Photo: Nico Schinco

This humble grain deserves bragging rights beyond your breakfast bowl. It is wholly satisfying in both sweet and savory dishes, provides an ideal balance of fiber, protein, and fat, and has also been shown to lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar. Here's the scoop on the different kinds, and simple ways to enjoy them from sunrise to sunset.

What Are Oats?

The plants of this cereal grain flourish in cool, wet climates. Research indicates that they were first cultivated about 3,200 years ago in Central Europe. Americans eat oats mostly for breakfast and in cookies, but in Scotland, they're incorporated into puddings, dumplings, soups, and of course, haggis. All members of the oat family start off as oat groats, the whole kernel that comes from an oat plant after it is harvested and husked.

Health Benefits of Oats

Oats contain key vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, manganese (essential for bone formation), and beta-glucans, a major source of soluble fiber. "Beta glucans dissolve in water and acid and form what I call a 'street-sweeping gel' that moves all food through your body and keeps you from absorbing some cholesterol," says Detroit nutritionist Grace Derocha, RD, CDC.

Types of Oats and How to Cook With Them

Each type of oat, whether rolled, steel-cut, or instant, has its own characteristics. How to choose? It all comes down to your personal preference and the recipes you want to make.

Rolled Oats

Also known as "old fashioned," these oats are made by steaming oat groats, pressing them flat and then rolling them into flakes. Rolled oats are a very versatile oat; they are the type most often called for in baking oatmeal cookies or adding a delightful crunch to fruit crisps but can also be used for breading for chicken or as a delicious topping for roasted vegetables or eggs, grain bowls, and salads. Nutritionally, they're similar to steel-cut, but cook in about half the time.

Cooking Tips

Combine 1 cup liquid per 1⁄2 cup oats (use water or a 50-50 combination of milk or alt milk and water for creaminess); bring to a boil, then simmer about 15 minutes. "Stir in a little brown sugar and nutmeg or cinnamon— or orange zest," says our former food editor, Riley Wofford. "It really brings it the oatmeal to life."

Try: Maine Grains Organic Rolled Oats or Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats

Steel-Cut Oats

These mild, nutty oats are the least processed, smallest type of oat and are denser, with twice the nutritional punch of other varieties. They have more texture and chewiness than instant or rolled oats , too. As their name suggests, they are oat groats that have simply been cut into pieces by a steel blade rather than flattened like other varieties. Steel-cut oats take the longest to cook: 20-30 minutes to cook. Also called Irish oats, they are most often used for a traditional morning bowl of oatmeal or porridge—but don't overlook other uses. "I replace a quarter of the meat in meatballs or meatloaf with cooked steel-cut oats as a binder, or mix them with other grains for stuffed cabbage," says Riley.

Cooking Tips

Combine 2 cups liquid per 1⁄2 cup oats; bring to a boil, then simmer about 30 minutes.

Try: McCann's Steel-Cut Irish Oatmeal

Instant Oats

Also known as quick-cook oats, these are dried and cut, or pressed into small pieces and then thinly rolled so they will cook fast when you prepare them. This production changes their overall texture so that when you cook them at home, they produce what fans consider a more creamy textured oatmeal, detractors say it's mushier. They are ready to eat in five minutes or less. Their texture means they aren't often used in baking recipes because they lack the necessary crunch, but they do work wonderfully in this Chocolate Coconut Skillet Cookie, and this recipe for Blueberry-Oatmeal Muffins. Riley suggests folding them into quick breads in place of a quarter of the flour, or rolling balls of cookie dough in them for crunch.

Cooking Tips

Combine 1 cup liquid per 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup oats; bring to a boil, then simmer about 5 minutes.

Try: Coach's Oats

How to Store Oats

Oats have a long shelf life. Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, they will last up to a year.

Watch and learn how Martha likes to top her oatmeal:

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