A late bloomer in the development of grains, oats were first cultivated probably around 1000 B.C. Gourmands of classical times were not impressed and dismissed them as animal fodder. The Romans took oats to Britain, however, where they were greeted with more respect. Oats tolerate moist, cool climates, and Scots in particular became enthusiastic oat-eaters—oats are integral to national dishes like oatcakes and haggis, and legends abound linking Scottish brawn and business acumen to their frequent consumption of oats.
Perhaps the Scots were on to something, because oats are highly nutritious. They have as much protein as wheat, with a higher fat content and almost no gluten. Unlike wheat, oats retain their bran and germ during processing. Oats are heart healthy as they’re high in soluble fiber, which lowers bad cholesterol, a fact that the oat industry has capitalized on for their marketing campaign for many years. Steel-cut oats have more fiber (8 grams per 1/2 cup) than their old-fashioned and quick-cooking counterparts at 4 grams per 1/2 cup.
- Steel-Cut Oats: Sometimes called Irish oats or Scottish oats, these are groats sliced by steel blades. These take about 30 minutes to cook but stay pleasantly chewy with a distinctly nutty taste.
- Rolled Oats: Using a process invented by the Quaker Mill in 1877, old-fashioned rolled oats are steamed groats that are flattened by rollers into flakes, which cook in about 15 minutes.
- Quick-Cooking Rolled Oats: Cut and rolled into thinner flakes, these oats cook in about 5 minutes. Instant oats have been precooked and should be used only as cereal.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.