All about OATS: kinds, health, uses, storage, recipes, & folklore

All about oats - Embers on the hearth

As many other things, oats seem to come in and out of fashion and we are now living one of the ‘in’ periods. Every social media platform is inundated with ugly porridge bowls hidden by carefully arranged pretty toppings and overnight oats.

The great benefit of ingredients becoming popular is that they usually are more easily available and more varieties pop-up. The negative side is that prices tend to go up. Luckily oats seem to have mostly avoided the price hike and only benefited from the larger variety.

Science bits

Oats, the most exciting of all grains! OK, maybe not. But they are pretty interesting.

Oats (scientific name Avena sativa) have common oat as their full name. In some places you will see the term milk oats as well, because they release a whitish liquid when broken if they’re still green. Oats are a cereal grain, like rice, wheat, and maize. And like those, it is considered a staple food.

The plant first developed in the Fertile Crescent and slowly spread into the Middle East and Europe. It grows best in temperate areas and it likes rain. So, it should come as no surprise that the two biggest producers of oats are Russia and Canada.

The whole plant is safe to eat for humans, but only about 5% of the production goes to people. The other 95% is fed to animals.

The 7 different kinds of oats you can buy

Oat harvesting depends on the moisture levels of the grain. If you’re interested in learning more about it, I suggest checking the oat harvesting page of Hamlyn’s of Scotland (it’s a very interesting process, if you’re into that sort of thing).

Right after harvesting, oats usually go through 3 basic processes before they reach shops:

  • de-hulling: the hull (the hard protective part of the grain) is removed.
  • steaming: the de-hulled oats are steamed (but not cooked). This is done to prevent oats from going bad (rancid) too fast.
  • milling: the oats are processed to their final form from whole groats to flour, and this is the bit we’re interested in.

Even with all this processing all different varieties of oats, except for oat bran, are considered whole grains.

Oat groats

Oat Groats are basically whole oats without the hull, but with no other process applied to them. They are not easy to find other than in health stores and online. Usually they are pricier than other options.

Groats are chewy and take a long time to cook (they are similar to wheat berries or barley). If you want to avoid the 45 to 60 minutes of stirring needed, a pressure cooker or a slow cooker are good options.

If you live in the UK, these are the cheapest groats I’ve been able to find online.

Please note that the links are all affiliate links to Amazon, if you buy something from it, I will get a percentage that I will put towards the improvement of the website.

Steel cut oats, Irish oats, coarse oats, or pinhead oats

These are all different names for the same product: groats that have been chopped up. Steel cut oats are quite hard to find in the UK, but relatively common in the US and Canada.

They are chewy and take a long time to cook, but less than whole groats. Depending on the size they can take anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes to fully cook.

Once again, these are the cheapest pinhead oats I managed to find online in the UK.

Please note that the links are all affiliate links to Amazon, if you buy something from it, I will get a percentage that I will put towards the improvement of the website.

Scottish oats

Scottish oats are similar to steel cut oats, but instead of being cut they are crushed. Traditionally, they were crushed with stones, but now it is done with machines.

They are chewy and cooking times are similar to steel cut oats, but they are slightly creamier. These are relatively easy to find in supermarkets.

Rolled oats, regular oats, old-fashioned oats, porridge oats, or oat flakes

Another collection of names that refer to the same product. This is probably the most common variety of oats available, and the cheapest. They are made while the groats are being steamed by rolling them into flakes.

Rolled oats can be cooked somewhat fast either on the stove or by using a microwave, and they have a creamy texture.

I personally cook them by first covering them in boiling water, letting them rest for about 3 to 5 minutes, and then doing 2 to 4 30-second blasts in the microwave. In a few minutes, I have perfect porridge with no stirring and no mess, and if I want them less thick I just add more water or milk.

Instant oats or quick oats

Instant or quick oats are oats that have been steamed for a longer period of time, have been cut into small pieces, or both.

All kinds of oats can be instant or quick due to longer steaming periods. However, most available ones are made instant by further rolling or crushing, making them more powdery than the other kinds. Also, most instant oats come in individual packets and flavoured, but plain ones are available (if hard to find).

Instant oats cook in minutes with only boiling water needed (much like instant noodles). You can make your own instant oats by processing regular oats for a short time in a blender or food processor.

Oat flour

Oat flour is basically oats that have been milled into flour. As oat flour has no gluten, chemical raising agents need to be used when baking with it, and bakes usually require a lot of liquid compared to those that use wheat flour.

Baked products made with oat flour tend to have a chewier and denser texture than those made with wheat flour and they often take a longer time to fully cook.

Oat flour can be made at home with a food processor or a blender. However, they could dull the blades.

If you prefer to buy oat flour, the cheapest in the UK available online is this one. Check the company, because they also sell larger bags at an even cheaper price per kilo.

Please note that the links are all affiliate links to Amazon, if you buy something from it, I will get a percentage that I will put towards the improvement of the website.

Oat bran

Bran is the hull that gets removed from the groats. We can’t get many nutrients from bran, but we can make use of the fiber (check the health section below to learn more about the benefits). Usually it is mixed with other cereals or added back to oats.

Most bran is currently used as animal feed.

The most affordable online oat bran in the UK is this one. Keep an eye on the date because it will go off faster than oats.

Please note that the links are all affiliate links to Amazon, if you buy something from it, I will get a percentage that I will put towards the improvement of the website.

Health and nutrition

Let’s get the numbers out of the way: 100 grams of dried oats provide 389 kcal, with 66 grams of carbohydrates, 7 grams of fat, and 17 grams of protein. They are a rich source of fiber, vitamin B1, vitamin B5, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Oats are pretty awesome.

Oats also have all essential aminoacids, however they are quite low on lysine so they don’t really qualify as a full protein. To turn it into one, you can pair it with anything high in lysine. Apricots, peaches, bananas, goji berries and lychees are good sweet sources; while avocados, beets, leeks, and peppers are good savoury sources that go well with oats. Some seeds and nuts like pumpkin seeds and cashews are also a good source of lysine.

When it comes to health benefits, you will find all sorts of claims around the internet, but (as usual) very few have been properly studied and can be confirmed.

  • Oats are good for lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol. Oats have a kind of soluble fiber that lowers low-density lipoproteins and serum cholesterol. This fibre can be found mostly in oat bran, but is also present in dehulled oats.
  • Oats are good for the skin. The same thing that makes oats gloopy when cooked helps irritated and dry skin, especially those who suffer from eczema. To use, you should soak oats in water and gently rub the affected area. To make this process easier, you can add it to soaps, face masks, or inside a bath bag.

This kind of muslin bag is what you would use to make a bath bag. Fill it with oats, soap if you want, and whatever else you feel like using for health or perfume.

You can also use these bags to make tea, coffee, or use with herbs. They can be reused and washed in a washing machine (can you tell I’m a fan?).

Please note that the links are all affiliate links to Amazon, if you buy something from it, I will get a percentage that I will put towards the improvement of the website.

If you have celiac disease or are feeding someone who suffers from it, you should be extremely careful with oats. They don’t have gluten, but they do have a protein that can trigger a response in some people. If this is not an issue, you should still make sure that you use gluten-free oats (you can find them in the free-form section of supermarkets or health stores). Oat products are usually handled in factories that also use wheat flour, and no matter how well machines are cleaned, the powder can stay around and affect those with celiac disease.

Uses of oats

Where to start? Oats can be used for so many things!

Porridge is of course the most basic use of oats, as is using them in baking: cookies, oatcakes, bread, flapjacks… There are also cold cereals like muesli and granola (both very easy to make at home). And you can find a lot of recipes lower down in the page.

For those who are trying to eat less meat, stretch meals, or add some extra veggie-based protein, oats can also be added to soups, stews and any dishes you would make with mince meat (even if you are using an alternative, like lentils). I usually add oats to cottage and shepherd’s pie and to meatballs.

If you’re dairy-free or just want to try something different, oats can be used to make milk, yogurt, and cream. Milk in particular is extremely easy to make at home: mix 1 part oats with 2 to 4 parts water, blend and strain (save the dried oats to bake with or to use in the shower). You can make yogurt from that milk with a regular yogurt starter exactly the same way you would make dairy yogurt. For cream, do the same as for milk but this time with less water, soaking for at least half an hour, and after sieving add and blend 1 to 3 tablespoons of oil (you’ll be making a mayo-like emulsion, the more oil the thicker it will be).

If we go to more traditional uses that are not all that popular currently I could write a full book. I would love to really go into each of these recipes, but I’ll restrain myself and provide links to people who know much more than I do. Don’t be shocked if most of these recipes are from Scotland.

Caudle is a traditional way of cooking grains with milk, wine, or ale. Traditional oatmeal caudle is made with ale, as well as some spices. You could call it a very liquidy porridge or a very thick drink, and I was lucky enough to find a video by Aden Films that shows the preparation.

Two drinks that are not extremely weird and can still be found around are oatmeal stout and Atholl Brose. The first one, oatmeal stout, is a beer that uses oats as part of the wort (the grain mix that gets fermented), I have never tried it and probably never will because I am just not a beer person, but if you want to learn more about it, check BYO’s fantastic article. The second one, is another alcoholic drink (are we even surprised about this development?) from Scotland. Atholl Brose (or Athole Brose or even Athol Brose) is made with what is essentially oat milk, honey, and whisky. It is a traditional drink of Hogmanay and you can learn how to make it thanks to Scotman.

If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you may want to try sowans, a drink made by fermenting either oats or the husks leftover from milling (as a way to use every part of the plant). Finding a recipe for sowans (or sowens) proved extremely hard! There are a lot of references to it, but very few people seem to actually have tried making it, or tried it at all. After some digging I came across Soetik and Roots In Food. I’ll gladly accept further information if available, I love fermenting and this is something I would like to try at some point.

Another drink, this time of the non-alcoholic variation is avena. Avena is Spanish for oat, but it is also the name of a drink from Northern Latin America and Central America. It is prepared by boiling oats in milk and adding some spices and sugar. You can find a recipe at Dominican Cooking (keep in mind every country and region will have it’s own version).

Travelling back to Scotland we can find cranachan, a summer pudding made with cream, berries, and of course: whisky (it is Scotland after all!). The BBC has a really nice recipe for it.

Storing oats and food made with oats

Against common belief, oats can go bad. When they do, their colour will change and become slightly greyer and they will develop an acidic flavour and musky smell as well. As with everything, when in doubt just get rid of it. Please don’t feed it to animals, food that’s gone bad is as harmful to them as it is to us! Instead, you can compost it.

Storing before using

Stored properly, oats can last for up to 2 years when unopened and up to 3 months after being opened. Once open, oats should be kept in an airtight container in a cool and dark cupboard. Alternatively, they can be kept in the fridge to extend their life from 3 to 6 months.

Oat bran is very high in oils and will only last up to 6 months unopened and should be refrigerated once opened. Some brands of rolled oats have bran added back, these should be kept in the fridge as well.

Storing porridge and overnight oats

Once oats have been cooked into porridge, refrigeration is a must. Cooked porridge should be cooled as fast as possible and put away quickly to prevent bacterial growth. The best way to do this is to either spread the porridge on a thin layer or to put it away in individual servings. Overnight oats (or bircher muesli) should always be kept refrigerated.

Both cooked porridge and overnight oats can be warmed up using a microwave or in a pan. And they will last up to 5 days from the day they were prepared.

They can both also be frozen if they’re not going to be consumed within 5 days. To thaw, they can be left inside the fridge overnight or quickly thawed in the microwave.

Storing other oat products

When oats are used in baking, the baked products should be treated as usual. If it’s dry (such as bannock or oat muffins) it can be left outside, if it’s moist (such as cooked oats or those popular banana oat cookies) then it’s better to kept them in the fridge.

Homemade oat milk or horchata will only last for 3 or 4 days (always in the fridge) but the texture will become somewhat slimy after 2 days. If the mouthfeel puts you off, you can use it for baking.

Oat folklore

Considering how ubiquitous oats were for Northern Cultures for centuries, it is surprising that the number of legends and myths surrounding oats are not many.

In Scandinavia the last bit of oat harvested was used as an offering during Yule, and the tradition travelled with emigrants to America. Franklin County Historical Society goes into more detail (and explains some of the other things I will be mentioning lower down too).

In Germany, and according to some sources in Britain as well, there was the belief that spirits inhabited the fields of grain, and the last shaft left on the field contained the whole spirit. Depending on the area different things were done. Some would leave this shaft undisturbed so as not to upset the spirit, others would cut the heads in order to kill the spirit, and others would either burn or bless the shaft to rid it of the spirit. Every grain had its own spirits associated with it, and oats had quite a few of them: oat wolf, oat goat, oat deer, oat lady, oat man, oat king, and oat queen among others. 

Another horror film regular believed to be attracted to oats were vampires. During the Middle Ages it was common for farmers to go out to the oat fields wearing garlic and farms that grew oats would often hang garlic on their door frames so that no vampires could walk in.

On a happier note, the straw from the oats has long been used to make corn dollies by people of all ages, particularly children. This tradition has been going out of fashion, but modern Pagans and Wiccans are reviving it as part of their practice. You can learn more about corn dollies (and find some projects) at the Guild of Straw Craftsmen.

Modern witches also use oat as a magical plant. Some of the most common uses are workings that involve money, work, abundance, fertility, family, home, and happiness.

And to finish this section, let’s talk about something that many people believe to be a myth, but did actually exist: the porridge drawer. In Scotland and Ireland, kitchens would have a cupboard where food was stored that included drawers. One of these drawers was often covered in tin, and if this wasn’t the case the homecook would use several layers of muslin. Once a week a large batch of very thick porridge would be prepared and then left to cool and stored in the drawer. Thick slices would be cut from it and taken to work or school for lunch. I have come across a few sources that also mentioned the drawer on top of the porridge drawer was used as a cot when the family had a baby, so that the warmth of the oats would lull the little one into sleep. I can’t confirm whether this was true or not, but weirder things have been seen!

50+ oat recipes from around the web

To finish off this very long post, I have listed some interesting oat-based recipes. There are hundreds of fantastic recipes online. These are just some of my favourite ones that feature oats as one of the main ingredients and some traditional ones I didn’t mention before.

Sweet recipes

  1. 3-minute no-bake cookies, by Quaker
  2. Anzac biscuits, by Jamie Oliver
  3. Apple crumble with walnuts, by BBC (Mary Berry)
  4. Banana oat muffins, by Quaker
  5. Black forest cranachan, by BBC
  6. Breakfast bars, by BBC
  7. Carrot cake bread, by Quaker
  8. Chocolate and ginger oat biscuit, by BBC
  9. Chocolate chip oat energy bites, by Quaker
  10. Classic oat bannock bread, by the spruce Eats (you can add spices and dried fruits, and if you reduce the sugar you can make it savoury)
  11. Diggers, by BBC
  12. Easy oat cake, by allrecipes
  13. Flapjacks, by BBC
  14. Ginger oat crunch biscuits, by BBC
  15. Hob Nob biscuits, by allrecipes
  16. Honey oat roasted pears, by Food network
  17. How to make porridge, by BBC
  18. How to make overnight oats, by woman & home
  19. No-bake oat and chocolate macaroons, by allrecipes
  20. Not-so-sinful brownies, by Quaker
  21. Oat cinnamon rolls, by Passion kneaded
  22. Oaty rhubarb and ginger streusel cake, by Delicious magazine
  23. Oaty shortbread recipe, by Delicious magazine
  24. One-bowl triple chocolate oatmeal jumbles, by Quaker
  25. Original granola, by Deliciously Ella
  26. Parkin, by Delicious magazine
  27. Plain oatmeal cookies, by allrecipes
  28. Sweet potato baked oats, by allrecipes

Savoury recipes

  1. Baked peppers with oaty nut stuffing recipe, by Good to know
  2. Beetroot veggie burgers, by BBC
  3. Caramelised onion, mushroom and gruyere quiche with oat crust, by Food network
  4. Chilli cheese flapjacks, by allrecipes
  5. Cuban-style black beans & plantains over oatmeal, by Quaker
  6. Everything bagel crackers, by Chatelaine
  7. Haggis bon bons, by Scotland now
  8. Herb-goat cheese gluten free oat scones, by Quaker
  9. Kid’s soda bread, by BBC
  10. Meatzza, by BBC
  11. Mediterranean Deviled chicken salad, by Quaker
  12. Oat-crusted pork medallions with spicy mushroom sauce, by allrecipes
  13. Oaty pork in cider, by allrecipes
  14. Pan di ramerino (Tuscan rosemary bread), by allrecipes
  15. Pumpkin seed crackers, by allrecipes
  16. Roasted cauliflower & oat soup with turmeric, by Quaker
  17. Rye, ale and oat bread, by BBC
  18. Savory baked breakfast oatmeal cups, by Sondi Bruner
  19. Savoury oat risotto, by allrecipes
  20. Savoury oatmeal with mushrooms spinach and thyme, by Quaker
  21. Simple spinach, cottage cheese and oat pancakes, by Mostly Eating
  22. Simon Rimmer’s mackerel rolled in oats, by Good to know
  23. Skirlie, by Great British Chefs
  24. Staffordshire oatcakes, by allrecipes
  25. The life-changing loaf of bread, by SBS
  26. Veggie crumble, by BBC