“What’s the difference among steel-cut oats, old-fashioned oatmeal, the quick-cooking kind, and instant?”
Perhaps it’s because oats are so familiar to Americans (cue the aroma of Mom’s cookies here) that they don’t have the fear-factor associated with other whole grains. But oats are a whole grain—one that is cheap, simple to cook or enjoy raw, and easy to work into breakfast and other meals. I’ll give you the rundown in a sec, but first a little background.
Oats, which belong to the grasses family (Gramineae), likely originated in Asia Minor, which comprises most of modern-day Turkey. Compared to millet, for instance, another grass that has been a dietary staple of humans for 10,000 years, oats are a relatively recent addition. My go-to grain expert Maria Speck writes in Ancient Grains for Modern Meals that oats only started being cultivated in Europe from about 1000 B.C. “The plant thrives in moist and cooler weather,” she wrote, “which explains its popularity in northern Europe, especially in Scotland, but also in parts of Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia.”
Oats are a great source of protein and healthy fats. They have an abundance of soluble and insoluble fiber; the soluble fiber, specifically beta-glucan, helps lower cholesterol levels in the blood, and insoluble keeps the body’s plumbing in good order. And they are a good source of iron, magnesium, and B vitamins.
As far as gluten goes, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, “a large body of scientific evidence accumulated over more than 15 years has proven that oats are completely safe for the vast majority of celiac patients."
Oats are not related to gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley and rye. They don’t contain gluten, but rather proteins called avenins that are non-toxic and tolerated by most celiacs (perhaps less than 1% of celiac patients show a reaction to a large amount of oats in their diets). Oats can be in a celiac’s diet provided they are selected from sources that guarantee a lack of contamination by wheat, rye or barley. Some who add oats to their diet may experience GI symptoms. This may actually be a result of the increased fiber that oats provide instead of a reaction to the oats themselves.
Today pure oats (i.e., gluten free) are becoming more widely available. The producer I see most often is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, which grows their oats from non-GMO seed and processes them in a dedicated gluten-free facility.
In the types of oats listed below, the germ and bran are rarely removed during processing, so even though rolled oats, say, go through some extra steps in comparison with steel-cut oats, ounce per ounce the nutritional differences are quite minor. No matter how you choose to incorporate sweet, nutty, wholesome oats into your diet, when buying them, know that the container should list one ingredient: oats. And take a sniff before using: They should smell sweet, nutty, and wholesome. If they smell rancid instead, take them back.
Oats at a Glance (Plus a Few Cooking Tips)
Groats: Groats are the whole oat grain, or “berry,” with the hard outer hull removed but the fiber-rich bran layer left intact. Available primarily at health food stores, they are worth seeking out, as their pleasant chew and toasty sweetness make them a versatile whole grain for savory preparations. Maria Speck is a big champion, and to prepare pilaf à la Maria, bring 1 ¼ cups water, 1 cup groats, and a pinch of salt to a boil in a saucepan. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until tender yet still slightly chewy, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let steam, covered, about 10 minutes before serving. Drain any remaining liquid.
Steel-Cut Oats (aka Pinhead or Irish Oats): This is what you get when groats are passed through steel cutters, which chop each groat into a few pieces. Steel-cut oats make a nutty, chewy, tremendously satisfying hot cereal; in fact, they are the oats used in the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. And if your chief complaint is that you don’t have time in the morning to cook hot cereal for 30 minutes (or longer), then simply soak the steel-cut oats in water (four parts water to one part oats) in a covered container overnight. The next morning, the softened oats will cook in about five minutes or so. You can also make a big batch, store it in the refrigerator, and reheat smaller portions in a saucepan with a little water until softened and warmed through.
Rolled Oats (aka Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats): These are made by steaming groats, then flattening them into flakes with a roller. Grain millers will adjust the rollers for various oat producers. Quick-cooking rolled oats are made the same way, for instance, but are cut into smaller pieces so they cook faster. And thick-rolled oats, which will result in a hot cereal with more texture, are also used in breads, granolas, and breakfast/energy bars. For a terrific muesli (the recipe is from Gourmet), simply stir together 3 cups rolled oats, 1 ½ steel-cut oats, the zest and juice of 3 oranges and 1 lemon in a bowl. Stir in some chopped dried fruit and raisins. Then cover and refrigerate a good 8 hours. When ready to eat, stir in some chopped fresh fruit (this time of year, apples and pears are nice) and toasted hazelnuts or walnuts. Serve with yogurt (or cream) and honey. And you can even drink your oats in a smoothie; here's five recipes to try out.
Scottish Oatmeal: These are groats that aren’t cut or rolled, but stone-ground. The texture of Scottish oatmeal is fine, but not as fine as that of oat flour, and when cooked in simmering water for 10 minutes or so, turn creamy. This, by the way, is the oatmeal of ancient Scotland. When the great English writer Samuel Johnson disparagingly described oats as "A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people," his biographer, James Boswell, noted that Scottish economist Patrick Murray, fifth lord Elibank, was quoted by Sir Walter Scott to have replied, "Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?"
Instant Oats: These are made like rolled oats, but they are rolled thinner and cut finer so that they cook in seconds. Their texture resembles baby food (in other words, yuck), and commercial preparations all too often contain flavorings and additives, including sugar. If time is really that critical (or if you secretly love the texture of baby food), make your own instant oats by whizzing up rolled oats in the blender.