All About Oats

Oats are such a delicious grain, and so versatile in the kitchen. But what's the difference between steel-cut and old-fashioned? When you think of oatmeal, do you picture a bowl of mushy cafeteria-style gruel? Well it's time to brush up on your oat knowledge and re-think how to enjoy them! 

Left to right: quick oats, old-fashioned oats, steel-cut oats (from the bulk bin).

Left to right: quick oats, old-fashioned oats, steel-cut oats (from the bulk bin).

To start with, all oats begin as an oat groat. The groat is just the whole grain as it was born in nature. Typically, the raw groat is then lightly roasted, which will inactivate the enzyme that makes oats go rancid. Increased shelf life and a nice toasty flavor - bonus! 

After that, some are sold as groats. But most are processed into these common oats:

Steel-Cut Oats - The whole groat is split into pieces. These oats must be cooked before eating, and take about 45 minutes on the stove. They retain their shape well when cooked, and make a chewy and nutty oatmeal. 

Rolled or Old-Fashioned Oats - The whole groat is steamed, which makes them soft and pliable. Then, they are pressed and dried. They cook much faster than groats or steel-cut oats, and retain some shape. When made into oatmeal, it is smoother and less nutty. 

Quick or Quick-Cooking Oats - These start off like rolled oats, but are pressed even thinner. The cooking time is decreased, but you lose some texture in the process. 

Instant Oats - Even thinner than quick oats, cook in about a minute in the microwave, and end up very soft and mushy. 

Now that you've got the terminology down, what about the nutritional difference? Well, the label is going to look very similar:

For comparison, I chose the Quaker brand for all three styles.

For comparison, I chose the Quaker brand for all three styles.

The big difference here is highlighted above. When you choose steel cut oats, they are denser and absorb more water, so you begin with a smaller quantity.

But that doesn't really tell the whole story, does it? I don't know about you, but I really value feeling satisfied by my food, and not being hungry again in an hour. And so for me, texture is big. I find that the chewier steel-cut oats are more satisfying, even if it looks like a smaller amount in the beginning.

I like to pre-cook a big batch of oats, and then re-heat and add mix-ins throughout the week. This works well for me, but I have friends who wouldn't dream of not having it made fresh each time. If you do pre-cook, you'll be enjoying about 1 cup of quick or old-fashioned oatmeal, and about 3/4 cup of steel-cut (all depending on how thick or thin you like your oatmeal).

As for mix-ins, sweet flavors are common with oatmeal, but I also love a good savory bowl.

  • Banana slices, peanut butter

  • Gorgonzola cheese, grapes, walnuts

  • Cheddar cheese, Canadian bacon

  • Scallions, edamame, soy sauce

  • Canned pumpkin, honey, walnuts

  • Pineapple, coconut milk (drink)

  • Egg whites, salsa, pepper jack cheese

  • Feta, tomato, dill

It's all about portion-control with these mix-ins. Try to keep the toppings to about 150 calories total, for a filling and delicious 300 calorie breakfast.

What about you? How do you like your oatmeal?

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Katie Goldberg

Katie Goldberg, MCN, RDN, LDN, has been a registered dietitian since 2013, but has always had a passion for good food and a healthy lifestyle. Katie earned her Master’s of Clinical Nutrition from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has worked in private practice, higher education, in a clinical setting, and as an in-house dietitian for a food company. Whether it's at through large groups or one-on-one, Katie enjoys connecting people with easy and practical solutions for better health.