What is oatmeal? 1) It's something I like to have for breakfast when the weather turns cold. 2) It's also the one thing people always make lame jokes about when I say I went to a Quaker college. 3) Kids know it as a breakfast that comes in packets labeled peaches 'n' cream or apples 'n' spice. 4) Horsey girls know their ponies eat oats too, although those oats come from a tall grass, not a store called Wild Oats.
What Americans call oatmeal is made when whole oats are cleaned, toasted, hulled and steamed, then flattened by huge steel rollers. You'll usually find the words “rolled oats” on a familiar round carton. The less common Irish oatmeal comes in fancy white and gold tins and is made from oats that are not rolled, but instead sliced into two or three pieces. Look for the words “steel-cut” on tin or carton. Because they're thicker (not rolled, remember), steel-cut oats take longer to cook, about 20 minutes on the stove or 10 minutes in the microwave. They can be precooked and then reheated or toasted in the oven to reduce cooking time. Steel-cut oats have a strong, nutty flavor and a dense, chewy texture. If you like oatmeal, then you'll probably like steel cut oats. If you like peaches 'n' cream flavor, you probably shouldn't waste your money—Irish oatmeal is significantly more expensive.
Quaker, and other brands, make the familiar old-fashioned rolled oats, quick oats and instant oats. Old fashioned oats take less time to cook than steel-cut, about 15 minutes on the stove, and when cooked, individual oats are still distinguishable and slightly chewy, with good oaty flavor. Cooking old-fashioned oats in milk instead of water makes them creamy and delicious.
Quaker began selling oats in the late 1800s but it wasn't until the '50s that quick oats hit the shelves, along with scores of other “new and improved!” foods. Quick oats are a sort of hybrid of old-fashioned and steel-cut oats; they're rolled thinner than usual and cut into several pieces. They cook in about five minutes, but the result is a bit of a mush.
Talk about mush though, instant oats, which are rolled, steamed, cut and pre-cooked, are prepared just by adding boiling water. Most instant oats are sold flavored, in single-serving packets. I bought organic instant oatmeal in bulk and when cooked it resembles nothing so much as wallpaper paste: thick, sticky, gluey and yucky. Yes, yucky.
To make matter worse, instant oats taste like … um … cardboard? Dust? Nothing at all? Think of the bland flavor and unsettling consistency of Uncle Ben's rice or Potato Buds compared to brown rice or mashed Yukon golds. It's like trying to compare the beef flavor of a McDonald's burger to one you'd make at home. Sure, it may be edible in its own way, but it doesn't really taste like what you were hoping for.
Oatmeal is good. It's cheap, filling and can help lower your cholesterol. But do yourself a favor and don't get sucked in by the instant stuff. Go old school when you buy oatmeal.