On a cold chilly morning, I can't imagine anything more satisfying and comforting than a warm bowl of creamy oatmeal. Thank goodness there seems to be a consensus among those with expertise in nutrition that oatmeal is healthy too. While I have opened many little envelopes of premeasured instant oats my preference is old-fashioned rolled oats cooked on the stove, or in the microwave, that develop a creamy, yet slightly chewy, texture. For me, the bonus of making my oatmeal is adding any extra flavor my little heart desires.
Steel cut, instant, rolled, old-fashioned, quick cooking, and Irish are all labels attached to oatmeal, but what do these terms mean, and which one should I use? To help sort through the labels, I did a little research and here is what I found:
• Groats: the whole oat kernels with only the husks removed.
• Steel cut oats: (also known as Scottish or Irish oats) are toasted groats cut into tiny chunks with a steel blade. They require the longest cooking time and have a toothsome, chewy texture, keeping its shape after cooking.
• Rolled oats: typically marketed as old-fashioned or whole oats, and look like thick flat slightly textured discs. During processing, groats are steamed to soften before being fed through metal rollers to flatten. Rolled to flatten. Rolled oats cook faster than steel-cut oats, absorb more liquid, and while becoming soft, hold their shape during cooking.
• Quick cooking/instant oats: rolled oats pressed even thinner than regular rolled oats to allow more water to penetrate, and often precooked and dried, to speed up cook time at home. When prepared, these oats are often mushy and do not retain much texture.
I was happy to learn nutritionally; all oats are relatively created equal because they all begin with whole oat groats. The difference lies in the processing, with the less processed oat taking the longest to digest, which will make you feel full longer and helps keep blood sugar stable.
So, it looks like my big box of old-fashioned rolled oats is a good place to start, but now what? Oatmeal doesn't have a lot of taste by itself, which is why there are so many flavor choices among the instant variety, most of them sweet, but would you ever consider savory oatmeal?
It seems "grain bowls" have become a very popular healthy meal. Quinoa, farro, and yes even oatmeal, are being combined with such ingredients as roasted red bell peppers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and even hot sauce to make healthy side dishes. Some recipes will add an egg and call it breakfast, so if you're up for an adventure, steer away from sweet and try a savory breakfast instead.
Personally, I will have to ponder the idea of adding mushrooms and onions to my oatmeal, as my favorite "mix-ins" are still on the sweet side. My most recent passion is a combination of warm chopped apples, cinnamon and a little brown sugar combined with my warm creamy oatmeal.
Add a peeled and chopped apple to a hot skillet with some cinnamon and brown sugar while you're cooking your oatmeal. By the time your oatmeal is ready, your apple mixture will be too. Pour the warm apples on top of your oatmeal and stir; yum. If you want to be indulgent, you can add a drizzle of caramel ice cream topping, too. Sit back and enjoy!
My daughter likes her oatmeal cold, so she puts dry oats in a bowl or jar, and adds things like almond milk or yogurt, honey, dried blueberries or chopped dried apricots and sprinkles the whole thing with cinnamon. She does this in the evening and puts her concoction in the refrigerator overnight and eats it cold in the morning, often taking the jar to work with her to eat at her desk. The first time she told me she did this I thought it odd, but I can now attest to the tasty convenience of her method, but I like to sprinkle a few nuts on top right before digging in to add some crunch.
If you are making oatmeal for your family, I have a trick for you. Combine oats and water in your slow cooker, cover and cook the mixture on low all night, and you will have perfect oatmeal waiting for you when you awake. Before you go to bed, set out your family's favorite toppings and your breakfast will be ready to go whenever you are. My cousin uses the same method with steel-cut oats and the porridge setting on her rice cooker, so experiment.
The combinations are endless; traditional maple syrup and brown sugar, berries and a little milk or cream, straight cinnamon and sugar, or how about a little agave syrup and a tablespoon of crunchy granola or almonds? Dried cranberries or figs, with a little orange zest accompanied by a sprinkle of sugar, are possibilities, or if you want to be indulgent, try swirling in some Nutella or chocolate chips and top with a sliced banana.
You can't go wrong with a bowl of oatmeal. It is a healthy and satisfying meal whether you like yours hot or cold, old-fashioned or instant, sweet or savory. Be creative with your "mix-ins" and create your masterpiece.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.