Oatmeal was not a part of my culinary repertoire until fairly recently. I viewed it less as a hearty whole grain, and more like bland mush reminiscent of paper mache.
Its stellar nutritional profile, though, eventually lured me back. The soluble fiber in oats helps reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and is a prebiotic, making it great food for our beneficial gut bacteria. Oats also offer generous amounts of protein, B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, iron, and zinc. Steel-cut varieties also provide gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an anti-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid.
After several trials, tweaks, and experiments, I successfully turned a ‘blah’ breakfast item into a food I now look forward to eating several times a week in the fall and winter (I never got into the cold “overnight oats” thing, so chia pudding takes the place of oatmeal in hotter months).
I realized many of my nutrition clients had also relegated oatmeal to slop territory mainly due to improper preparation. Check out my four rules to make tasty, exciting, and, dare I say, decadent oatmeal like the one you see photographed here.
1) Select steel-cut. For years, the only form of oatmeal I ate was cooked “instant quick-cooking” oats. While still an excellent source of soluble fiber, the additional processing they undergo yields a mushier cooked texture. Rolled oats are not as processed as quick-cooking oats, but since they are still a steamed and flattened version of whole oat groats, the texture doesn’t have enough for my liking. My pick: steel-cut oats, which are chopped up whole oat groats. Steel-cut oats need to be cooked on a stovetop and won’t be ready in 90 seconds, but a small serving cooks in approximately ten minutes. The end result is a chewy, hearty oatmeal that really hits the spot.
2) Upgrade your liquids. Water is a fantastic beverage, and I encourage you to drink several glasses a day. I don’t, however, cook my oatmeal in it. Instead, I prefer to cook mine in various unsweetened, vanilla-flavored non-dairy milks. Sometimes, I’ll go for a soy-almond-coconut medley. Another day, it might be almond and rice. You can, of course, just use one variety (by the way, if you want to use cow’s milk, stay away from watery and flavorless fat-free milk). This change in cooking liquid allows the oats to absorb flavor as they cook, and also imparts a slightly creamier texture. To add additional richness to the cooking liquid, add a tablespoon of canned coconut milk.
3) Spice it up. Sprinkling cinnamon to a bowl of oatmeal is fairly common. I’m talking, however, about adding spices to the cooking liquid so that the oats absorb flavor as they cook. My go-to combination: vanilla bean powder, cinnamon, and maca (a Peruvian root vegetable with a flavor reminiscent of malt). I have also successfully experimented with cocoa, lucuma (for a subtle maple flavor), mesquite (for caramel notes), pumpkin pie spice, cardamom, and ginger.
4) Add tasty toppings. Now that I’ve addressed two tips that relate to the actual cooking of the oats, let’s talk about what happens once your oatmeal is cooked and ready to serve. Here are some of my favorite toppings:
- Whole or chopped raw almonds or walnuts
- Dark chocolate chips (my pick: Lily’s sugar-free chocolate chips). I especially love how they slowly melt with the oatmeal’s heat.
- Cacao nibs
- A tablespoon of your favorite nut or seed butter. The oatmeal heats it up and melts it throughout the entire bowl.
- The “omega 3 triple threat”: chia, hemp, and ground flax seeds.
- Common dried fruits (raisins, chopped dates, dates covered in oat flour, dried cherries) as well as less traditional dried fruits (mulberries, mango, dragonfruit).
- Unsweetened shredded coconut
- Fresh fruit: bananas, strawberries, blueberries
- Half a scoop of protein powder (my favorite: Sun Warrior)
So, let’s put this all together. Here is one of my staple oatmeal recipes, which I love to have with iced coffee and fruit and usually a Granny Smith apple on the side.
- 1 cup milk of choice (I like to combine unsweetened vanilla varieties of soy, almond, and coconut)
- ½ teaspoon vanilla bean powder (or vanilla extract)
- Dash of cinnamon, to taste
- 1 teaspoon maca powder (completely optional; no need to buy a bag of maca just for this one recipe)
- ½ cup steel-cut oats (my preference: Bobâ€™s Red Mill Golden Spurtle)
- 4 Tbsps almonds (whole or chopped)
- 2 tsps dark chocolate chips
- Pour milk into a small pot and add vanilla, cinnamon, and maca powder. Heat until it comes to a boil.
- Add oats and stir briefly. Lower heat to medium/medium-high.
- Cover pot and cook oats until liquid is absorbed (approximately 10-12 minutes).
- Transfer cooked oatmeal to a bowl. Add chopped almonds and dark chocolate chips.
NOTE: I did not receive compensation, financial or otherwise, for mentioning specific brands. I do not have any relationship, professional or otherwise, in any capacity, with brands mentioned in this post.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus who takes an interest in food politics, deceptive food marketing, sustainability, and social justice. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is also the Strategic Director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can read more of his work on his Small Bites blog and can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.