Oatmeal Gets Its Moment in the Spotlight

Oatmeal, a humble winter breakfast food, has recently become a hot topic of conversation in the media. Food writer Mark Bittman expressed strong views on fast-food oatmeal in his recent New York Times op-ed, while Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates responded skeptically to Bittman’s claim that cooking oatmeal at home is more convenient.

The attention on oats is due in part to fast-food restaurants, many of which have adopted oatmeal on their menus as an obligatory nod toward healthy eating. At the behest of Last Chance Foods, Dan Pashman, one of the hosts of the Sporkful food podcast, sampled McDonald's oatmeal, which Bittman concluded was as healthy as a sausage biscuit. “It was more like an oatmeal soup,” reported Pashman (pictured below on the left). “It was like 50 percent water. It was as if they cooked it—instead of using water or cream or milk—they used simple syrup.”

On the home front, the debate between instant oatmeal versus quick cook oatmeal versus steel-cut oatmeal is ongoing. While Pashman admits that he does sometimes eat the quick-cook variety, the other of host of Sporkful, Mark Garrison (pictured below on the right) described instant oatmeal as “a wounded, dying, rabid animal” that he didn’t want in his mouth (in this Sporkful podcast). Garrison is instead a fan of steel-cut oatmeal and shares this quick preparation tip for those who gripe that it takes too long to make: “Just drop them in a little water and then the next morning you can have them in eight to 10 minutes,” Garrison says, “and they will be [that] steel-cut texture, taste and all of that.”

Pashman also recommended steel-cut oats for those new to making oatmeal at home since it's heartier than rolled oats and has a better margin for error during cooking.

“If you leave [steel-cut oatmeal] on the stove for a few minutes too long, you’re not going to ruin the whole oatmeal,” Pashman says, adding that cooked steel-cut oatmeal can also be stored in the refrigerator for a few days and refreshed with a dash of milk or water before eating. On the other hand, he points out that rolled oats require hyper-vigilance to avoid a less-than-desirable consistency: “They’re like the Fruity Pebbles of oatmeal, if you leave things in the milk for a second too long, you’re just going to have mush.” Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison

While they may agree on what kind of oatmeal makes for the best eating, Pashman and Garrison are split on the milk versus water debate. Pashman likes to add a dash of milk at the end, while Garrison avoids the milk entirely in his oats. What they do agree on is that either choice will produce healthier results than McDonald's watery, sugary version.

As evidenced in the hundreds of comments attached to Bittman’s and Coates’ oatmeal posts, this hearty breakfast cereal draws in some passionate opinions from savvy cooks. “If you’re not going to devote just a little bit of extra time, maybe you don’t deserve oatmeal,” says Garrison, who adds that cold cereal is always a fast, easy breakfast standby. “Oatmeal demands that you respect it and give it just a little bit of your time.” 

One Sporkful fan (who calls himself Andy) suggests making oatmeal with milk and seasoning it with salt, pepper and a dusting of cayenne. He then adds a layer of pesto before using a broiler to melt a layer of cheese on top. Finally, he drizzles the whole deal with olive oil before serving.

Megan, another podcast listener, likes to stir in soy sauce and peanut butter, Sriracha hot sauce, and roasted vegetables.

What are your favorite oatmeal toppings? Also, what do you think the difference between oatmeal and porridge is? Do you prefer instant, steel-cut or regular oats? Post your comments below, and anything else you'd like to add about this ubiquitous breakfast standard.