I looked at the weather forecast (snow) this morning and my brain said oatmeal. Do you love oatmeal too? It’s warm, satisfying, and a blank canvas for as many varieties of fruit, nuts, seeds, and sweeteners as you can dream up. It can even be made savoury! And side benefit… it may help lower LDL cholesterol (a little bit).
This will be a quick overview of the kinds of oatmeal and then ideas for some fun variations.
First, terminology. The word “oats” technically refers to the grain, in its whole, unprocessed form. It’s also used for the products that make it to the grocery store shelf, although they’re sometimes also called oatmeal. And “oatmeal” is usually used for the cooked dish. But they’re pretty much interchangeable.
Some people say porridge, although that refers to any kind of hot cooked cereal, including, but not limited to oats. You can make porridge out of wheat (think Cream of Wheat), cornmeal (grits), rice (congee), quinoa, barley, and many more.
Type of oats
Steel-cut (aka Irish) oats are cut with sharp steel blades, leaving them with more of a bite, texture-wise. They cook in about 20-30 minutes.
Rolled (aka old-fashioned or large flake) oats are steamed and flattened with heavy steel rollers, thus the name, and cook in about 5 minutes. They make more of a creamy porridge.
Quick-cooking (aka minute) oats cook in about one minute, microwave or stovetop. They usually come in a bag.
Instant oats usually come in packets. They’re thinner and more finely chopped. They can be microwaved or even prepared by adding boiling water.
(The last one is a classic health halo food by the way. About three times the sugar and FOUR TIMES the price of the Quaker product, all because it’s gluten-free and comes in a cup? Hard no. If you need gluten-free there are much less expensive and packaging intensive options.)
And now we have quick-cooking and instant steel-cut oats! Oh the paradox of choice.
And there are some oatmeal products with other grains mixed in, and I say bring it on! Not that “ancient” or “super” grains are any better, but variety is the spice of life, right? And it can provide you with a wider range of nutrients. So have fun and experiment a bit! It’s all good.
People are sometimes surprised to find that all of these products are considered whole grains, and they all have about the same amount of fibre!
There are two main differences nutritionally. Sugar and salt or other sodium-containing ingredients are usually added to instant oats. There are reduced-sugar varieties, which have more like 1-2 teaspoons of sugar (4-8 grams), versus about 2-3 teaspoons (8-12 grams) for regular flavoured instant oats. If you want to skip the sugar, look for “regular” or “original” instant, but check the ingredient list to be sure.
Secondly, the glycemic index generally gets lower as the cooking time gets longer. That means they raise blood sugars more gradually, which is a good thing, especially if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Still, if instant oats work best for you in a pinch, toss in a handful of pecans, chia seeds, or berries to slow things down.
I often recommend instant oats for people who need something quick while travelling, or a satisfying snack to fend off the 3pm munchies at work. If you let go of the good/bad characterization of foods, you can weigh your options and use what’s right for you in whatever situation.
If you have time and like the texture, I’d go with the steel cut oats. You can make a batch on the weekend and reheat it, but you’ll have to add more liquid and give it a good stir.
The possibilities are endless
We eat oatmeal for breakfast often, but it doesn’t get boring, because we’re always poking around the kitchen looking for extra things to add. Here are a few ideas, and with my apologies – often these are taken when it’s still dark out, so this is not a food photography exhibit. Just real life.
What do you like in your oatmeal? I find my clients are often really creative with their hot cereal combinations. Many people add things like ground flax, wheat bran, or psyllium for extra fibre. If you’re an oatmeal artist too, send pictures!