The Wonderful World of Oats! (FAK Friday)

Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats

Oats are a cereal grain, which, like many now prevalent crops, began as a weed. Early Greeks and Romans used oats primarily as feed for cattle, and looked down upon the grain in terms of human consumption. Meanwhile, other countries began to discover their culinary potential, and started chopping their oats with steel blades and cooked them into dense little cakes. Because of their easy to grow nature, oats soon spread in popularity. In more recent years, their nutritional properties have earned them the title of a ‘health food’ – the protein content of the grain rivals that of many legumes, such as soy, making it a good source of vegetarian protein, and in the 1980’s it was determined that some of the soluble fiber contained in oats could help to lower cholesterol.

To this day nearly 95% of oats grown go into hay, straw and feed for livestock, but their versatility has branched considerably into our every-day lives. Besides being known for being a quick, nutritious breakfast option, oats are more and more often being used to make breads, cookies, dairy-free milk, and even ice creams… they are also used in brewing some beers, and are a common ingredient in cosmetics for their skin-soothing properties! Outside of the kitchen, the rough outer hull of the grains are used to produce a range of products like resins, dyes, and adhesives, just to name a few. Quite an impressive weed, if you ask me!

It’s FAK Friday (Feeding my Appetite for Knowledge) and today I wanted to talk about oats! There are several different kinds of oats commonly available, so if you’ve ever wondered what the differences are this should give you a head start. As always, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible – much of my reading comes from books, but some of it is from the internet as well. If you notice any errors in the information below, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the post.

Oats oats and more oats!

Rolled Oats
I only had rolled oats on hand for these photos – whoops!

Oats come in a variety of different forms, and can be used in many different ways. They are a great source of protein and dietary fiber, and contain lots of gums which are what produce the gluey texture of oatmeal and porridge. The raw oat grain begins in a hard, fibrous husk called the ‘hull’, which is always removed. Hulled oats are called ‘groats’, and are typically referred to as ‘whole’ even though they lack their outer shell. They are used to make several different varieties of oat products – here I’ve made a list of some of the different kinds of oats available.

Rolled oats are commonly used to make porridge, or for adding to baked goods like oatmeal cookies and oat-breads. They are made from whole oats which are steamed until soft, and then flattened between rollers (hence their name). They’re great for adding texture and nutrition muffins, crumble toppings, and the like, or can be cooked on the stove-top or in the microwave for oatmeal. Oats can also be soaked overnight to soften them, a process used in making ‘raw’ breakfast porridge (though it should be noted that rolled oats have already been steamed, and are therefore not entirely raw).

Oats are commonly considered to be a gluten-free product, but this is not entirely true! Oats are commonly processed alongside wheat and other grains, and is thus considered off-limits to those with gluten allergies or Celiacs disease. They also contain a small amount of a compound called avenin, which for those with sensitivities can cause a great deal of stomach upset. For those avoiding gluten, it is important to look for oats that have been specifically labeled as ‘Certified Gluten Free’ – these oats have been carefully processed to not come in contact with wheat, and in some cases have been bred specifically to reduce the amount of avenin present.

Steel cut oats (sometimes called Pinhead Oats) are whole grain oats that have literally been cut into smaller pieces, typically with a steel blade. They have a chewier texture than rolled oats, and require a longer cooking time to soften. Because they contain the entire, unprocessed grain, steel-cut oats are considered highly nutritious. They are primarily used to make breakfast porridge, but can also be used in small quantities in baking.

“Quick-Cooking” (or quick-rolled) oats have been chopped (like steel-cut oats) and then steamed and flattened (like rolled oats). Being cut before rolling results in a grain which takes significantly less time to cook, but also means less texture, making them less useful in things like oatmeal cookies or breads.
“Instant” oats are made very similarly to quick-rolled oats, except they are steamed for a longer time, and crushed much thinner, to make them cook even faster. However, this prolonged steaming and processing leaches out some of the nutrients of the grain, leaving it less nutritionally dense than regular rolled oats. If you want the full nutritional benefit of oats, steer clear of the ‘instant’ label.

Did you know that regular rolled oats can be cooked in the microwave, too? Plain rolled oats can be combined with an equal amount of water and microwaved on high for one to two minutes (depending on your microwave) until softened. Just be sure to use an ample-sized bowl, as the oats will bubble up as the liquid boils, which can cause them to spill over the sides of a smaller vessel. Just keep an eye on them, or stop the cooking part way through to give them a stir. Easy!

Oat bran is a portion of the grain which contains the most fiber and minerals. The bran is often left in tact for things like old-fashioned and steel-cut oats, but are sometimes removed for faster cooking. Oat bran can be bought separately, and is often used to add fiber and nutrition to things like muffins and commercial breakfast cereals.

Oat flour is typically made from whole-grain oats that have been ground very finely. If the flour is carefully labeled as gluten-free (see “Gluten Free” Rolled Oats, above), it can be used in part to make gluten-free flour blends. Oat flour can also be added in small amounts to regular baked goods to add extra flavor and nutrition, but because oats contain very little (if any) gluten, the flour can only be used in moderate amounts alongside wheat flour in cakes and breads which rely on gluten for their structure.
In some cases you will find a variety of oat flours ranging from coarse to fine – finer grade oat flour can be added as a thickener to soups and stews.


What’s your favorite way to use oats? I always have rolled oats on hand, and one of my favorite breakfasts is a bowl of oatmeal with a dollop of peanut butter stirred into it, topped with slices of banana. What are your favorite uses for oats – have you used them in an unusual way? I would love to hear in the comments below!

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8 Responses to The Wonderful World of Oats! (FAK Friday)

  1. Ula February 9, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    I like my oatmeal with any type of berries, bananas or a spoonfull of apple or pear sauce with cinnamon. Yum.
    I have to try it with peanut butter now and I am tempted to have this for lunch as I already finished my morning bowl… Nothing crazy in having oatmeal for lunch, right?

    • Willow February 9, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

      Heheh, nothing crazy about it at all! Love my oatmeal with fresh berries when I have them… have never tried apple or pear sauce, will have to give that a go sometime. :)

  2. Eileen February 9, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Oatmeal is absolutely #1! It’s the best breakfast ever, especially with yogurt, chopped dried apricots, and toasted sesame seeds. Of course, I could also eat an oatmeal cookie right about now…

  3. Tamara February 11, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    I adore oats! These are my two favorite ways to eat them lately:

    Overnight Oats:

    Savory Oats:

  4. shannon weber February 12, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    i am happy to say that i knew alot of this, only because i’ve researched a bit myself when it comes to different types of oats and their uses (and at some point i realized that the “old fashioned rolled oats” i purchase only take 4 minutes longer to cook than “instant” and i thought “wow; how impatient can you get to need a fast alternative to 5 minutes?” :) i will say i just recently learned about gluten free oats, and i’m going to hunt them down soon. great job, Willow!

    • Willow February 14, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

      Heheh, thanks, Shannon. I feel the same way… a few minutes on the stove or a zap in the microwave is plenty fast enough for me. :)

  5. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes February 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Oats are so versatile! Of course I can never pass up a bowl of breakfast oatmeal, granola and throwing them into veggie burgers is a common occurence at our house! Also homemade oat flour – so easy :)!

    Do you think the fiance will lease out his hands, he is such a good hand model!!

    • Willow February 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Haha, isn’t he great? Sometimes I find myself just staring at whatever I’m about to photograph thinking ‘do I really want to set up my tripod/remote shutter release and do this myself?’ – then he walks in the door. :)

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