If you think oatmeal is goopy and bland, this guide is specifically for you. 

By Tiffany Stevens
January 29, 2020
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If you grew up with bland, boring, goopy oatmeal for breakfast, then you’re probably not clamoring to make it part of your breakfast routine once more. But hear us out: Oatmeal isn’t really the gruel-like morning staple from your childhood. Like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other controversial foods, oatmeal simply suffers from a bad reputation and, often, poor preparation. 

Of course, if you just want a quick re-introduction to oat-based breakfast porridges, you could always pick up an instant variety. But if you have the inclination, you’ll get a much better impression from experimenting with your own oat formula at home. To help you get started on your path to exploring oats, we’ve created this guide, which will walk you through everything from picking a cooking liquid to choosing the perfect toppings. By taking the time to dress up these versatile grains, you’ll realize that the oatmeal possibilities stretch far beyond an under-flavored bowl. 

Step One: Choose Your Oats

At first glance, this step may seem superfluous. Naturally, making oatmeal will require oats. But it’s important to give the exact oats you’re using consideration, because not all oats are cut (rolled, or processed) the same. Most oats are rolled, or pressed, to make it easier to cook them quickly. But some oats, like steel cut oats, are merely broken up instead of flattened; that crucial difference affects the cooking time. If you’re using steel cut oats, you should expect that they’ll take somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes to cook. Old-fashioned oats, which have been steamed and pressed, will take about 5 minutes. Quick oats, which are pressed to an even greater extent, take only one or two minutes, and instant oats, which are pressed even thinner, take less than that. As long as you pick the right oats for the occasion, you won’t end up with a soggy mess. 

Victor Protasio

Step Two: Choose Your Cooking Liquid

Once you’ve decided on your oats, it’s time to decide what kind of liquid you’ll cook them in. Water is an obvious choice, but milk will produce a thick and creamy oatmeal that’s perfect for both sweet and savory applications. Plant and nut-based milks can also be used to great success. Chicken or beef broth can also make delicious savory oatmeal bowls, and apple cider makes a surprisingly delicious cooking liquid as well. Feel free to experiment here and find the flavors that work best for you. 

Photo: Karen Rankin; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Karen Rankin

Step Three: Choose Your Toppings and Mix-Ins

Fruit and nuts make for delicious oatmeal toppers, but they’re not the only direction to take oats in. If you love the savory more than the sweet, try topping oatmeal with a fried egg, crispy pancetta and red-eye gravy. Or, if you’re feeling dessert for breakfast, make up some lemony blueberry oatmeal and finish it off with a scoop of mascarpone. When topped with yogurt and fruit, oatmeal can make a fantastic parfait, and if you’re willing to be a little adventurous, black beans, caramelized onions, and grilled mushrooms could create a savory oatmeal lunch. Oatmeal, like rice or grits, serves as a malleable base for practically any flavor; the creativity of your bowl is only limited by your imagination. 

When choosing your mix-ins and toppings, it’s important to consider how much you want the ingredients incorporated. Fruit cooked in the oatmeal will not have the fresh vibrancy, but will impart more flavor. Newly cooked bacon will be more likely stay crispy if you sprinkle it on last. Think about which textures you want most in your oatmeal, and assemble your bowl accordingly. 

Step Four: Cook Your Oatmeal

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How to Make Oatmeal On the Stove

For this classic preparation method, the biggest considerations are the type of oats and the amount of liquid used to cook. The longer an oat takes to cook, the more liquid you’ll need. As a general rule of thumb, steel-cut oats will need about four cups of liquid per cup of oats, while old-fashioned oats will only need two cups of liquid. 

Add your liquid, oats, and a bit of salt to a pot and bring it to a boil on medium-high heat. (Alternatively, if you have a few extra minutes, try toasting your oats in the pan before adding your liquid for a warming flavor boost.) If you’re using steel-cut oats, allow the oats to boil for a few minutes; if not, proceed to turn down the heat and cook for three to four minutes. Remove the pot from the heat source, cover, and allow it to finish cooking before finishing with your toppers. 

While you can cook quick or instant oats on the stove, these thin-rolled oats are a little trickier to cook without creating an unpleasant, gummy texture. Save the instant packets for the microwave (if you want to keep them at all). 

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How to Make Oatmeal in the Microwave

Get the Recipe: Microwave Oatmeal

You don’t have to buy sugary, instant oatmeal packets to quickly get a hearty meal in. Just add half a cup of old-fashioned oats and a cup of liquid to a microwave-safe bowl and nuke for two minutes. Then, top with butter, cream, fruit, or whatever else you might prefer when finishing off your oatmeal. If you want to make the microwaveable oats more accessible to others in the house, write down the above recipe on a note card and tape to the top of the oatmeal container. No more instant packets necessary.

Photo: Aaron Kirk; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Robin Bashinsky

How to Make Oatmeal In the Oven

If you prefer your oatmeal texture a little thicker/tighter (something closer to a custardy breakfast casserole), then baked oatmeal might be the way to go. For these recipes, quick cooking or old-fashioned oats work best. Combine two or three cups of oats with a liquid binder (usually a combination of milk, eggs, and butter) and any other desired mix-ins. Spread the mixture into a lightly greased baking dish, and then cook at between 350 degrees and 375 degrees for 20 to 35 minutes. Less cooking time will produce a looser consistency; a longer cooking time will move the oatmeal closer to bread pudding. 

The nice thing about oven-baked oatmeal is that it can easily be prepared in advance and popped into the oven in the morning. Use it as your short cut to a healthy, delicious start to your day. 

How to Make Oatmeal In an Instant Pot

The Instant Pot is another great way to get oatmeal ready without much effort. Add at least one cup of steel-cut oats to three or four cups of liquid, along with whichever other mix-ins you might like, and then use your pressure cooker setting to cook the oats for six hours. Release the steam carefully, serve, top with any additional ingredients, and enjoy.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Joni Noe

How to Make Oatmeal Overnight

Overnight oats might be the easiest way to make up a hearty breakfast, especially if you only have time to grab something on the way out the door. For this recipe, mix at least a cup of oats with a cup of milk, yogurt, or both combined. Portion out the oatmeal into Mason jars, leaving some room at the top so the oats can expand. Shake up each jar to make sure they’re fully mixed, and then place the jars in the fridge for 8 to 10 hours. The oats will absorb the liquid; if you add fruits or any other ingredients to the oatmeal, it’ll pick up those flavors to. And since overnight oats are usually portioned out into handy jars, you can simply grab one and enjoy once you get a few moments to yourself.