January is National Oatmeal Month, celebrating how much of it we eat during one of winter’s coldest months. The health benefits of the humble oat have elevated it to a superfood, although it once was considered a weed that contaminated other crops, or a second-rate version of wheat suitable only as animal feed. Even today, humans consume only about 5% of the worldwide oat crop.
What makes oatmeal a star
With a good balance of protein and fiber, along with other important nutrients, a lower glycemic index and better amino acid balance than other grains, oats help you feel full and satisfied for longer, which makes it a great midnight snack as well as a breakfast staple. Oats also contain soluble fiber that prevents cholesterol from being absorbed in the intestines. In response, the body removes cholesterol from the bloodstream to replace what’s absorbed in the gut, and that lowers your blood cholesterol.
But it’s the versatility of oats that makes them a star in the kitchen. Unlike other grains, almost every form of oats you can buy includes whole-grain nutritional benefits, equally at home at breakfast, in treats, as an ingredient in dinner recipes, and as a snack.
Oats, processing, texture, and time
As a general rule, the more processed the oats, the softer their texture and the faster they cook. Steel-cut oats, also called Scotch oats or Irish oatmeal, provide a thicker texture, but they require more cooking time than other forms. Rolled or “old-fashioned” oats—steamed and flattened between giant rollers—hold more liquid.
Quick oats have been rolled or steamed more than old-fashioned oats, and cook faster as well. Instant oatmeal takes the rolled-oat process one step further, flattening the grains into even smaller pieces, which transforms this breakfast staple into a hurry-up time saver, with microwaveable forms requiring a mere 5 minutes to cook.
The price of instant oatmeal
Unfortunately, instant oatmeal includes sodium, added sugars, and other food additives, including guar gum. Also called gellan gum or guaran, this gluten-free powder made from the guar bean offers eight times the thickening power of other additives such as cornstarch. Although guar gum can add to oatmeal’s ability to reduce serum cholesterol, lower blood glucose levels, and produce a lasting feeling of fullness, some people experience digestive gas and bloating when they consume it regularly. And although oats themselves are a naturally gluten-free food, watch out for ingredients that introduce gluten into instant oats.
Ramp up your dinner options, adding oatmeal as a replacement for breadcrumbs in a tasty meatloaf. This recipe lends itself to experimentation with different mixtures of ground meat, types of onions, and alternative seasonings.
Make your own granola bars and enjoy better-tasting results than with store-bought products—at a lower cost and with fresher ingredients. If you’re not a walnut aficionado, substitute almonds, pecans, pistachios, or a mixture of other nuts. For a vegan take on this treat, try substituting the egg whites with aquafaba, the liquid you drain from cooked chickpeas.
Shift the preparation time for breakfast oatmeals to the night before with overnight oatmeal recipes, which combine milk, yogurt, spices, fruits, and nuts with oats in a jar and allow them to absorb all the liquid. These recipes typically call for old-fashioned oats rather than steel-cut or other less-processed oat varieties to optimize the texture of the finished product. For a vegan variation, substitute non-dairy milk and yogurt. Remember to refrigerate these tasty breakfasts to avoid spoilage.