With all the different types of oats out there, it can get confusing. Is one superior to the other? Is one healthier than another? Here’s the simple scoop: Oat groats are whole oat kernels that have had the hard outer hull removed. Steel cut oats are groats that have been cut into three or four pieces (they’re termed “pinheads” for their appearance, which you can see in the photo below). Rolled oats (sometimes termed “old-fashioned rolled oats) are groats that have been steamed and rolled flat. Quick-cooking rolled oats are steel-cut oats that have been steamed and flattened, as is instant oatmeal, only cut into smaller pieces. All of these forms of oats have the three beneficial whole grain parts intact; the texture is all that differs. But beware; instant oatmeal does often come with added sugar, fat and preservatives.
What They Look Like: Whole oat groats look a bit like plump, dull-sheened brown rice with a dimple running lengthwise. Steel-cut oats are dull, buff-colored, medium-sized grains (they look somewhat like bulgur) with jagged edges. Rolled oats are flat and powdery, and instant oatmeal is the consistency of coarse sand.
What They Taste Like: Oats have a lovely, very mild nuttiness to them. Because their flavor is so neutral, they’re a good whole grain to cut your teeth on—in whatever form you choose. Oat groats have a rice-like texture to them with a bit more toothsome chew. Steel-cut oats are dense and chewy with a delightful “pop” at the core. Rolled oats cook into a porridge-like consistency, with quick-cooking oats turning slightly runny and instant oatmeal pushing mushy.
How to Cook Them: For groats and steel cut, cook oats in a 1:3.5 ratio of oats to water. Heat a bit of butter in the pot and toast the oats before adding the liquid, then bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes for whole groats, 25 minutes for steel-cut oats. For rolled oats, use a 1:3 ratio and bring water to a boil, then add oats, reduce heat and simmer for 5-15 minutes for rolled oats and just 1-2 minutes or quick-cooking oats.
How to Use Them: Oats are, obviously, terrific breakfast food in whatever form you like. But also try leftover groats or steel-cut oats (before you flavor them) in place of rice in stir-fried rice or seasoned with savory additions and served like a risotto.
Additional Notes: Steel-cut oats in fancy cans can get expensive, but they’re downright cheap in bulk. They’re also incredibly healthy; starting in the 1960s, a significant number of studies identified a type of soluble fiber in oat bran, called beta glucan, as a major contributor in lowering total and LDL cholesterol. What’s more, that filling feeling from eating a bowl of oatmeal—which has actually been measured and quantified in the development of a Satiety Index–may help maintain a healthy weight.