Warming Up to Breakfast (Steel Cut Oats)

Oatmeal for Breakfast

I’ll admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of breakfast. Growing up, breakfast was more often than not a bowl of cereal – I wasn’t a big egg fan, bacon was a rare treat, and most mornings nobody had time to prep a hot breakfast. (Aside: To think of all the bacon I could’ve eaten while my metabolism was still young and vibrant….) By college, breakfast was more like a cup of coffee grabbed on the way to class, or the omelet I would eat before sleeping, having being up all night in the lab. This coffee-only tradition carried proudly into adulthood. Breakfast was relegated to an event, maybe something fancy to do on the weekends or something extravagant.

I still don’t have time for breakfast; now, I have even less than before, as I wake up immediately behind in my work day. Coffee is a must – I get disoriented and surly without it, usually by mid-morning. However, I can’t wait for lunch like I used to, especially now that I’m tracking portion sizes and trying to eat healthier and all. Cereal just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I needed something else.

Enter the steel cut oat. Forget everything you knew about oatmeal growing up – this is the real deal. Hearty. Filling. Full of all that good stuff your mother used to tell you about. And, really tasty too, once you know what you’re doing.

Oatmeal comes in three basic varieties: steel cut, rolled, and instant. Steel cut oats are the closest to whole, unprocessed oats, with all the bran and fiber intact. Raw, it looks sort of like tiny grains of brown rice. Rolled oats (or “old fashioned” oats) are what we’re used to thinking of as oatmeal in the US. These are prepared by taking steel cut oats and rolling them to flatten them, breaking down some of the structure of the grain and shortening cooking time. Instant oatmeal takes this concept to its limit, pulverizing the rolled oats to really shorten the cooking time.

If you think about this, you can imagine the effect this has on the texture and taste of the oatmeal. Instant oatmeal is basically mush, with little or no distinct texture. There’s no distinct grains, just a congealed mass of starch and fiber, often bolstered by all sorts of flavor additions to make up for this. Rolled oats are better – not quite as mushy, still retaining some of the oat-yness of the grain, sort of the great compromise. It’s like you can taste what oatmeal should be, but the individual grains are too soft to really be distinct. If you’re willing to go that little bit farther, steel cut oats are where it’s at – emphasis on the oat, not the meal, in OATmeal.

Oatmeal, close up

There’s one more key to making great oatmeal, regardless of what kind you use: salt. It had never occurred to me to salt my oatmeal until I saw it done one morning on a business trip by a coworker in an aging chain hotel near a refinery in Port Arthur, TX. Oatmeal at its core is just oats cooked in water, so it makes sense that it desperately needs salt to taste good. At the time, I always thought of oatmeal as wanting to be sweeter and that salt was reserved more for savory foods. (How wrong I was – add a little salt to your hot chocolate sometime. Works wonders.)

So, I tend to be simple with my oatmeal. I like it cooked thick, topped with some salt and cinnamon and a pat of butter. That and a cup of coffee is fast emerging as my morning routine.

Cooking the oatmeal is a snap – by volume, use four parts water to one part oatmeal. I fix half a cup of oats (so, two cups of water) to make a big bowl for myself. Add a good three-finger pinch of salt and dust with cinnamon. I have been known to add a chopped apple to the mix for flavor.

Plus, there’s no reason this can’t go savory. I’ve made it with great success by swapping out the cinnamon for a good sprinkling of thyme and oregano – change up your breakfast or use as a side dish with dinner. It’s versatile like that.