As we move into the colder months of the year, it becomes more apparent than ever that oatmeal is king of the breakfast table. It's warm, satisfying, and hearty enough to carry us through to lunchtime. Beyond a hot bowl at breakfast, oats show up in pancakes, muffins, cookies, granola bars, and so much more.
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All oats start off as oat groats — the whole, unbroken grains. Before being processed into any other variety of oat, groats are usually roasted at a very low temperature. This not only gives the oats their nice toasty flavor, but the heat also inactivates the enzyme that causes oats to go rancid, making them more shelf-stable.
The Difference Between Steel-Cut, Rolled, & Instant Oats
The difference between steel-cut, rolled, and instant oats is simply how much the oat groat has been processed. This also results in each variety having a distinct texture and varying cook times.
Also referred to as Irish or Scottish oats, this variety is made when the whole groat is cut into several pieces, rather than rolled. Steel-cut oats look almost like rice that's been cut into pieces. This variety takes the longest to cook, and has a toothsome, chewy texture that retains much of its shape even after cooking.
In addition to being used for porridge, steel-cut oats can also be used to make meatloaf and savory congee (a nice alternative to rice), or add texture to stuffing.
Because of its toothsome texture, rolled or instant oats don't make a good substitute for steel-cut oats.
Also called old-fashioned or whole oats, rolled oats look like flat, irregularly round, slightly textured discs. When processed, the whole grains of oats are first steamed to make them soft and pliable, then pressed to flatten them.
Rolled oats cook faster than steel-cut oats, absorb more liquid, and hold their shape relatively well during cooking. In addition to be heated for a warm breakfast bowl, rolled oats are commonly used in granola bars, cookies, muffins, and other baked goods.
Instant oats can be used in place of rolled oats, although the cook time will be much less, and the final dish will not have as much texture.
Also referred to as quick oats, instant oats are the most processed of the three oat varieties. They are pre-cooked, dried, and then rolled and pressed slightly thinner than rolled oats. They cook more quickly than steel-cut or rolled oats, but retain less of their texture, and often cook up mushy.
Rolled oats can be used in place of instant oats, although it will require more cook time, and the final dish will have more texture.
→ Want to know what brand to buy? The Instant Oatmeal Taste Test: We Tried 6 Brands and Here's Our Favorite
One Surprising Thing These Oats Have in Common
While these varieties have undergone a different level of processing, resulting in different textures and cook times, there is one thing they all have in common: nutritional value. Steel-cut, rolled, and instant oats all have the same nutritional profile since they're all made from whole oat groats.
This post has been updated - originally published in February 2011.