There is more to oats than meets the eye.
In its most depressing form, oatmeal is gray, bland and pasty, the stuff of Dickensian orphanages and miserly boarding schools. But devotees of real oatmeal -- oatmeal with integrity -- know better.
On many inhospitable early winter mornings, it's the prospect of a steaming bowl of oatmeal that gets me out of bed.
But oatmeal isn't monolithic. Instant oats can be one-dimensional and cardboardy, and rolled oats too assertively broad and flat. It's the toothsome steel-cut oats, with their beguiling creamy-chewy texture and deeper flavor, that are worth waking up for. They don't just stick to your ribs; they tickle them, too. With a smidgen of planning, you can even look forward to multiple oatmeal mornings from cooking up just one batch.
Steel-cut oats take longer to cook -- up to an hour, in some cases -- than most other forms of oats, so they're not suited to whipping up on a morning whim. The wily among us have devised shortcuts to put us closer to our oatmeal bliss. Soaking the oats overnight can be helpful, as is a pressure cooker or a countertop rice cooker with a "porridge" setting.
I prefer to cook up a big pot of steel-cut oats on Sunday night as I'm making dinner, because I'm right there in the kitchen to give an occasional stir to the oatmeal bubbling lazily in the Dutch oven at my elbow. Then I let it cool, put it in the refrigerator and rewarm individual portions as needed throughout the week.
This means that on an otherwise unremarkable weekday morning, I can sit down to a glamorous bowl of grown-up oatmeal in less time than it takes to nuke a detestable packet of instant oatmeal. This method doesn't require any special equipment, and you are able to cook the oats exactly as you please. I like mine cooked to death, but others prefer them just a wee bit al dente, like a good risotto.
Cooking steel-cut oats is essentially a matter of oats, water and gentle simmering, but a few minor tweaks lead to a far superior result. One is toasting the oats before adding the liquid, which brings out their nutty aroma. You can dry-toast the oats, but I prefer to do it in a little butter -- about a tablespoon per cup of uncooked oats -- to unleash their hidden butterscotch characteristics. The other key is to add a fat pinch of salt to the cooking oats, a tiny step that adds dimension and keeps the cooked oatmeal from tasting blasé -- especially if you cook your oats with water only.
Cinnamon and raisins are a good starting point, but the only limitation to oatmeal stir-ins is the inclusiveness of your pantry. Caramelized bananas, made with just three ingredients, take only a few minutes to prepare and are possibly the sexiest oatmeal topping on the planet. A tangy and colorful dried fruit compote dresses up the grayest oatmeal, and a crunchy caramelized sugar topping, borrowed from crème brûlée, makes oatmeal an event.
You can do more with the leftover oatmeal than rewarm. Cooked porridge (another word for oatmeal) adds nutritional heft and a moist crumb to baked goods like muffins, pancakes and yeasted breads. If you have a regular (not Belgian) waffle iron, you can griddle leftover cooked oatmeal: Put a well-greased iron on a medium setting, spread or pour a thin layer of oatmeal on the bottom half, close the iron, and let cook about 5 minutes, until you wind up with something that's crisp, lacy and golden-brown on the outside and chewy on the inside. But whatever form it takes, a day christened with oatmeal always starts well. Or ends well -- I've been known to warm up a little oatmeal for dessert.
Oats come in many forms; they differ in how they are processed. Oats are higher in fat than other grains (they have two to five times the fat of wheat), and therefore are more susceptible to rancidity. Buy your oats from a store where you know there's lots of turnover to ensure a fresh product. The cooking time and amount of liquid needed can differ from brand to brand, so keep an eye on your oatmeal as it cooks and adjust accordingly.
The whole oat has a bran layer on the outside and a germ at the bottom. "An interesting characteristic of oats is that the flavor depends on how you process them," said Bob Moore, an advocate for whole grains and founder of Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods in Milwaukie, Ore. Bob's Red Mill produces oats in at least seven forms, and each tastes different when cooked.
Whole oat groats are oat kernels with only the outer, inedible hull removed. They take quite a long time to cook and retain a chewy texture. You can use oat groats in savory preparations as you would hulled barley or wheat berries.
Steel-cut oats, also known as Irish oats, Scotch oats and pinhead oats, are whole oat groats broken into two or three pieces between steel rollers.
Rolled oats, sometimes called old-fashioned oats, are steamed and rolled oat groats. The steaming is necessary for their shape. "Oats being what they are, if you don't steam them and heat them and you try to roll them, the oat will go through the roller, fragment and make flour. After they've been steamed a little bit, you get a nice, thick rolled flake," said Moore. Rolled oats take about five minutes to cook, and hold their shape in baked goods.
Quick-cooking oats are rolled oats that are cut into smaller pieces for faster cooking. They are less aggressive in baked goods and make a finer-textured oatmeal. You can pulse regular rolled oats in the food processor a few times to make your own quick-cooking oats.
Instant oats are very small pieces of rolled oats that are typically precooked and need only an addition of hot water to be ready to eat. Some brands of instant oats contain less fiber than others. These are great for camping.