Photo by Kate Welsh

Don't be gruel to yourself. Eat better oatmeal.

Kate Welsh
April 27, 2018

Instant oatmeal is a lifesaver. It’s quick, passably nutritious, and customizable with whatever’s lying around the kitchen. But there are a lot of options out there, and they’re not all good. I gathered the six most available, plain-flavored options to figure out which one is worthy enough to earn a place in your cupboard or desk drawer.

In the course of our tasting, the Extra Crispy staff tried each instant oatmeal twice, following both the microwave and hot water instructions, to figure out not only the best oatmeal, but the best preparation for each. I learned something very important: If you are making instant oatmeal by pouring in hot water instead of microwaving it, you are doing it wrong. You are making gloppy paste with an oat-adjacent essence, not oatmeal. You could make it almost palatable with butter and jam—just about everything is more palatable with butter and jam—but the truth will remain that you are eating a coarse-mealed glue. Do not do this to yourself. Use the microwave.

Onward. Here are our findings, from worst to best:

6. McCann’s Instant Irish Oatmeal, Regular Flavor

Oh McCann’s, I so wanted to love you. McCann’s steel cut oats were a staple in my household growing up, and that old-school label feels right. But in both the microwave and hot water tests, it came in undeniably last place. The hot water version was so bad that the oats seem to simply float on top of starchy water. Described as “gruel-ier” than all the others, McCann’s was loose and soupy, with no texture to speak of. The flavor also left something to be desired, with only a hint of salt providing any structure whatsoever. McCann’s is so good for oatmeal that takes time. Just not what you should be reaching for when you need sustenance is less than five minutes.

5. Quaker Original Instant Oatmeal

As Senior Culture Editor Margaret put it, “Ah, the hot mush of my youth.” Quaker is consistent, but consistently bland. In texture and flavor, we were left wanting a little something more: a little more crunch, a little more salt. That said, it was wholly inoffensive and was a good blank canvas on which to pile more delicious things.

4. Arrowhead Mills Organic Instant Oatmeal

Significantly paler in color than the other options, Arrowhead Mills’ offering didn’t look so promising. Its soupier appearance didn’t inspire much confidence either. But while we found the flavor lacking, there was a slight upside: “This also tastes like nothing, but a better nothing,” Margaret said. This was thanks in large part to the presence of enough salt and a surprising amount of texture for a more liquidy oatmeal.

 

3. 365 Organic Original Instant Oatmeal

A richer mouthfeel, decent texture, and buttery flavor put Whole Foods’ option in our top three. However, it stuck to the roof of your mouth in a way that Culinary Editor Rebecca Firkser likened to feeling like a dog licking a spoonful of peanut butter. And unfortunately, the good taste upfront gave way to a weird aftertaste: a bit bitter and plant-like, as if we were chewing on stalks of wheat instead of eating oatmeal.

2. Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Instant Oatmeal

Straight out of the packet, Trader Joe’s oatmeal was more visually appealing, with a wider array of color and differently sized grains. This resulted in a spoonful that was a little sticky, but a far more interesting bite—a huge relief after bite after bite of similarly-textured mush. While not terribly interesting taste-wise, the hint of salt and pleasant toasty flavor made this extremely close to being the top contender.

1. Nature’s Path Organic Original Hot Oatmeal

But that No. 1 spot went to Nature’s Path. After the gruel-y, glue-y bowls we had tried before, my notes on this one say, in a shocked scrawl, “really like this one?!” It was a pleasant, hearty, slightly sticky texture, with a little salt and some surprising, lovely cinnamon. My fellow tasters and I took multiple, unforeseen spoonfuls. It was good enough that I wouldn’t be devastated eating a bowl of it plain, with no toppings in sight. And as we learned the hard way in the world of plain instant oatmeal, this is high praise indeed.

 

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