Here’s a guide to oats in their most widely used varieties — rolled, steel cut, quick-cooking, as well as whole oat groats. You’ll find tips on buying, storage, cooking how-to’s, and lots of ideas and links to recipes.
Oats have become one of the most popular and widely used cereal crops in the Western world. They’re frequently eaten as oatmeal (porridge) and are a breakfast favorite for many people.
Oats are valued for their hardiness in cold climates, such as Scandinavia, and they’ve long been a favored grain in the cool, damp British Isles, especially in Scotland, where they have been part of many traditional dishes.
Half of the world’s oat crop is grown in North America, where oats have been widely used since colonial times. Their mild, pleasantly nutty flavor and the variety of ways in which they can be processed make them a good, all-around grain.
WHOLE OAT GROATS: Whole oat groats are the basis of all other oat products and contain the oat grain in its purest form. Before consumption, the outer husks are removed, and the kernel is cleaned and toasted to remove layers of thick hull.
After that, the tough hull is scraped from the kernel and the bran, which is edible and nutritious, as well as the kernel’s germ, remains.
Whole oat groats are softer than wheat or rye berries, so they lend themselves well to rolling, slicing, and milling. Their texture is comparable to that of rice or barley, and they’re fantastic in savory meals like oat risotto and salads made with grains.
STEEL-CUT OATS: Oftentimes called Scottish or Irish oats, these oats are exactly as their name applies — steel-cut. They are made by slicing the whole oat groat into small pieces with sharp, steel blades. This gives them a chewier texture than the whole oat groat.
To give them a toasty flavor, steel-cut oats are sometimes lightly roasted before being sliced. Because they cook to a thick, somewhat sticky consistency, steel-cut oats are more useful as a cooked cereal (albeit a rather long-cooking one) than as a grain for general cookery. Hearty, gritty, and nutty in flavor, they have far more texture when cooked than rolled oats or oatmeal.
OLD-FASHIONED ROLLED OATS: One of the most popular forms of oats, rolled oats are whole oat groats that have been steamed and run through steel rollers to flatten them. These are what you get most often when buying in bulk at the grocery store.
Quick oats are a variation of rolled oats, in which they are also steamed, but sliced thinner into smaller pieces before being flattened in rollers.
Quick oats or oatmeal: Quick-cooking oats are rolled oats that have been partially cooked and dried, resulting in shorter cooking time. Instant oats have a slightly mushier texture than old-fashioned oats, so keep this in mind when choosing the best type of oats for your preference.
A GOOD-FOR-YOU GRAIN
Oats are considered one of the most nutritious of grains, for good reason. They’re nutrient-dense, with an excellent profile. They’re a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Oats are also mineral-rich, with a significant amount of iron, as well as a good supply of calcium and phosphorus.
Since oats are never refined, they retain their nutritional qualities through many phases of processing. Rich in protein and fiber, a half cup of rolled oats has 13 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. Oats boast one of the highest protein contents of all common grains, second only to amaranth and quinoa.
Oats contain a higher proportion of fat than most other grains (although they can’t be considered a high-fat food by any means). Some claim that this accounts for their value as a warming food in cold weather because fat helps the body store heat and energy. Here is more detailed information about the health benefits of oats.
ARE OATS GLUTEN-FREE?
Yes, but with a caveat. Oats are naturally gluten-free and safe for most gluten-intolerant people. However, because oats are regularly farmed and processed in the same facilities as gluten-containing cereals like wheat, rye, and barley, they are frequently contaminated with gluten.
If you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, your best bet is to shop for products that are labeled or certified gluten-free. This ensures that the oats are pure and uncontaminated.
Oats are also safe for those with wheat allergies if they are pure and uncontaminated.
Here are popular selections of certified gluten-free oats:
Rolled oats are a great ingredient in and topping for baked goods of all kinds
BUYING AND STORAGE
The shelf life of oats varies depending on what form they’re in. In a cool, dry place, quick or instant oats will last between six to nine months; rolled oats approximately one to two years, and steel-cut oats may keep for up to three to five years.
Oats have the additional benefit of containing an antioxidant substance that acts as a natural preservative to extend their shelf life. However, overexposure to heat, moisture, and sunlight can cause their quality and freshness to deteriorate quickly. For optimal freshness, store oats in all their forms in a cool, dry place as you would other grains.
You can also store dry oats in the freezer to extend their life span if you won’t be using them for a while. When you’re ready to take them out, there is no need for defrosting. Simply take them out and place in a pot to make your favorite oatmeal recipes.
How to Cook Oats in Various Forms
Whole Oat Groats: Of all the different forms of oats, this one takes the longest to cook (anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours). After 45 minutes the grain is still firm and chewy; after 2 hours, the grain will burst and become mushy. Use your discretion and cook the grain to suit particular recipes — a firmer texture is nice for pilafs and grain salads, for instance, whereas a softer texture is better for soups and cooked cereal.
Use 3 parts water to 1 part grain. Bring the water to a boil, stir in the grain, return to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the water is absorbed. If you like a softer texture, add another 1/2 cup of water for every cup of raw grain that was used, then simmer until it is absorbed. Repeat until the grain is cooked to your liking.
To make the cooking process for groats go more quickly, you can cook them in an Instant Pot. Follow manufacturer’s directions.
Basic Cooked Steel-Cut Oats: Use 4 parts water to 1 part grain. Bring the water to a boil, stir in the grain, return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the water is absorbed, about 45 to 50 minutes.
Basic Cooked Rolled Oats: For old-fashioned rolled oats, use 1 1/2 parts water to 1 part grain. Bring the water to a boil, stir in the oats, return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the pot from the heat and let the grain stand for a few minutes before serving.
Quick-cooking or instant oats: For these varieties, it’s best to follow package directions, as they’re all a little different. Instant oats usually cook in about 1 to 3 minutes and can be made in the microwave for a quick and easy breakfast. To make oatmeal tastier and even more nutritious, add cinnamon, dried or fresh fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Another oat product is this gluten-free flour made from finely-ground rolled oats. While you can buy ready-made oat flour, it’s easy (and less expensive) to make your own, if you have a food processor. This flour is often sometimes used in baking sweet treats and breads, in whole or part with a flour that has more rising action. Oat flour also makes excellent pancakes.
Oat milk has exploded in popularity in recent years. It’s versatile and nourishing. And growing oats is kinder to the environment than nuts. In addition to containing a modest yet significant amount of fiber (something you won’t find in cow’s milk), oat milk contains a good amount of calcium and iron. It also has twice as much vitamin A as cow’s milk.
Compared to nut milk, oat milk has creamier texture without any added ingredients, since oats absorb more water than nuts. This makes it great for your morning coffee (oat milk creamers, which can be found in nearly every supermarket are even better for that than straight oat milk) or as a liquid base for smoothies. Popular oat milk brands sold in virtually any supermarket or natural foods store include Pacific Foods and Oatly. If you’d like to make your own, here is a recipe on Minimalist Baker.
WAYS TO USE OATS
Soups and stews: Substitute whole oat groats for barley in long-cooking soups. Or, add steel-cut oats to vegetable or bean stews to lend thickness and substance.
As an egg substitute or binding agent: Quick-cooking oats are a fantastic egg substitute in certain dishes that need a binder to hold together, for example, vegan latkes.
Pilaf dishes: Cooked groats or steel-cut oats make a chewy addition to grain pilafs, especially when used in conjunction with a fluffy grain such as couscous, long-grain rice, or quinoa.
Salads: The pleasantly chewy texture of whole oats makes them an interesting basis for hearty winter salads and grain bowls.
Hot cereal (oatmeal): Use as a hot cereal with agave or maple syrup, plant-based milk, nuts or seeds, and dried fruit. Add an unusual twist with chopped apricots, cashews, and cinnamon. Make things a little fancier (but not more difficult with creative recipes like Apple Pie Oatmeal. Find more creative options in 20+ Vegan Oatmeal Recipes.
Baked goods: Add small amounts to baked goods, such as muffins, and pancakes for hearty texture.
Oatmeal cookies: Vegan oatmeal raisin cookies are a wholesome treat that you can enjoy guilt-free. This recipe makes a generous amount — about three dozen — but watch them disappear quickly.
Banana bread: Substitute 1/2 cup rolled oats for the equivalent amount of flour in your favorite recipe for banana bread.
Pancakes: For delicious pancakes, replace up to half the wheat flour in a standard recipe with rolled oats. Try these oat-based vegan banana walnut pancakes.
Overnight oats: Strawberry almond overnight oats are a simple and lovely breakfast to wake up to, combining oats and oat milk with fresh fruit on hand.
Energy balls: Peanut butter granola energy balls make a nice mid-morning or mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or even a grab and go breakfast.
SWEET AND SAVORY RECIPES USING OATS
Here are more vegan oat recipes from around the web:
- Easy Tempeh Oat Meatballs
- High Protein Oat Groats and Lentil Salad
- Savory Mushroom Oats
- Lentil Loaf with Tomato Glaze
- Oat and Seed Bread
- Vegan Savory Oatmeal with Tempeh Bacon
- Banana Bread Baked Oatmeal
- Almond Joy Overnight Oats
See more of this site’s Good Food Guides.
More sources and information
- A Harte Appetite: The Origins of Oatmeal
- Different Types of Oats: Health Facts, Cooking Tips, and Recipes
Contributed by Anna Fiore: Anna is a 2021 graduate of SUNY-New Paltz, majoring in Communications, with a concentration in Public Relations and a minor in journalism. She is an advocate of environmental sustainability and clean eating.