Nutty and sweet, nutritious and creamy, there's more to oats than meal. Oats do make a terrific cereal, but you can also add them to soups, sautés and baked goods, or use them in savory dishes as you would rice or barley. And then there's everyone's favorite: oatmeal cookies!
Oats are chock-full of vitamins and minerals, and are especially high in protein, with 150 percent of the amount found in some kinds of wheat. Plus, we should all eat more fiber, and oats are a tasty way to add it to our diets. A half-cup serving of old-fashioned oatmeal has about 30 percent more fiber than you’ll get in a packet of instant oatmeal or a bowl of Cheerios (originally sold as “Cheerioats”). Ounce for ounce, whole oats are easily the least expensive of the three — even the most expensive organic-certified oats keep the cost per serving around 10 cents. By contrast, a bowl of Cheerios is about 30 cents, and each packet of instant oatmeal costs 50 cents.
Oats retain more moisture than other grains, so they help keep baked goods soft and moist longer. Plus, oat flour has triple the fiber of regular all-purpose flour. The protein in oats is water-soluble, so it won’t beef up the structure of dough like the gluten in wheat does. To achieve better lift in breads and pastries, combine oat flour with higher gluten flours, such as whole wheat. (Whole grains take longer than refined grains to absorb liquid, so it’s a good idea to let whole grain batters rest for a while before cooking them.)
We’ve all heard about the cholesterol-lowering, immune-boosting properties of oat bran. The oat kernel is one of the few grains that isn’t routinely separated from its nutrient-packed parts (the bran and germ) during processing. So you can enjoy the health benefits by eating almost any kind of oats, whether in savory stews or fluffy, sweet oat treats.
Most natural foods stores offer a wide selection of oats. The differences are based on the extent to which the grain has been broken down. For peak flavor and nutrition, store all of the following types of oats in the refrigerator or freezer:
Groats: whole kernels of the oat grain.
Steel-cut oats: groats cut into a few pieces to speed cooking time; also called Scottish or Irish oats.
Rolled oats: groats that have been steamed to soften them, then flattened with a roller and dried; also called old-fashioned oats.
Instant oats: flatter rolled oats, chopped to speed cooking time.
Oat bran: the nutritious outer layer of the oat kernel.
Oat flour: rolled oats or groats ground into flour; can be used as a thickener; easy to make in a blender or coffee grinder.
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