Ahh, the wonderful world of oats. All things considered, I’m a relative newcomer to this magical land of complex carbohydrates.
While I took part in all things “oat-meal-y” since I was barely out of grammar school, I wasn’t privy to the purity that raw, unadulterated oats offered until the last year or so.
As I noticed the effects oats were having on my body and mind–more energy, lack of lunchtime hunger, better skin (according to my in-laws)–I got more interested in the world of oats and the differences between them.
Consider this post an oats primer. For more detailed information on the history and nutrition of oats, check out this article.
What’s an Oat?
Oats are a cereal grain, and not the cereal most of us have become accustomed to seeing in Aisle 9, but the traditionally-defined cereal grains that include rice, wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat, and the recent health food favorite quinoa.
Most grow as grasses (also not the type of “grass” most of us are accustomed to seeing in our backyard), and are harvested for their respective grains.
Historically, oats were used as animal feed in many parts of the world, but their nutritional and health effect properties have made them the subject of a lot of interest in the health food community.
If you walk into Whole Foods or any other store where you can buy oats in bulk, you’re likely to find three main types for sale:
- Steel-cut oats.
- Rolled oats.
- Quick oats.
While I’ve heard rumors that “steel-cut” is the best oat out there, I had no idea why or why not until I finally looked into how these are made. It’s really rather simple:
After the outer shell of an oat is removed, the resulting grain is known as an oat “groat.” These are chopped using a steel-armed monster into the stuff you buy at the store that’s labeled “steel-cut oat groats.” That’s minimally-processed step one.
In step 2, giant rollers take various sizes of groats (depending on the desired outcome) and roll them into flakes. And with not much fuss, we get “rolled oats,” the flat stuff you see in the bin next to groats.
Step 3 involves some further processing in which the oats are pre-cooked (using steam), which not only makes them faster to cook, but also improves their shelf life.
Further processing can turn oats into oat flour, as well as “oat-meal,” which usually contains some crushed or milled oats and various artificial flavors.
Cooking and Enjoying Oats
It makes sense that the more processed your oats, the faster the cooking time, and the poorer the nutritional value you ought to get out of them. The same thing that gives foods longer shelf lives and makes them less attractive to parasites also destroys some of the valuable, nutrient-dense components of those foods.
Once home, all oats are cooked in essentially the same way–with boiling water. Steel-cut oats take about 30 minutes, rolled oats about 10 minutes, and quick oats a speedy 2-3 minutes.
The taste of oats varies widely based on the type and size of oats you buy and ensuring that the preparation is done correctly. Steel-cut oats tend to be described as grainy, somewhat crunchy, or “lumpy.” Rolled oats have a softer, more creamy texture, though like steel-cut oats, don’t really have any flavor on their own. Oatmeal products and other flavored varieties have the most consumer-accepted flavors and textures.
Since pure oats have little flavor on their own, it’s all about what we add to them that makes them enjoyable. Our personal favorites include fresh fruit, cinnamon, Greek yogurt, brown sugar, Agave nectar, and others.
Oats are best enjoyed fresh, but also re-heat well. A small amount of hot water can be added to the mass of cold oats, and the mixture re-constituted into something that looks edible.
Effects of Oats
Oats have a high fiber and protein content, which in addition to their complex carb goodness, contributes to their effect of producing “fullness” for a long period of time. A cup of cooked steel-cut oats clocks in about 16 grams of fiber and 20 grams of protein.
Don’t forget that steel-cut oats are about twice as dense as their rolled equivalent, so you only need about half as much to get the same nutritional value in terms of carbs and calories, though steel-cuts oats will be a little lighter on the fat content.