Ten years ago I did oats a grave disservice, but I’ve seen the error of my ways and I’m determined to set things right.
You see, back in 2012, I developed a convenient method for cooking steel-cut oats that trimmed the active prep time considerably (more on this in a minute), and I devised several lightly sweetened variations to stave off breakfast boredom: I could have apple-cinnamon oats one week and a cranberry-orange version the next. But eventually I did get bored. Sometimes I crave a richly savory breakfast, and on those occasions my oatmeal recipes—though delicious—didn’t really satisfy.
Now I realize that oats have much more range than I gave them credit for; there’s no reason why they can’t form the basis for a savory breakfast just as well as a sweet one.
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A Steel-Cut Shortcut
First, the cooking method: I strongly prefer steel-cut oats (rolled oats that have been hulled, cleaned, and dried before being cut crosswise into smaller bits) to all other forms of oatmeal because they cook up creamy yet chewy, with rich, nutty flavor. All you do is simmer them in water until the hard oats swell and soften and release some of their starch molecules into the surrounding liquid. The freed starch thickens the liquid until the oatmeal forms a substantial yet fluid mass of plump, tender grains.
The Savory Oats Routine
- Stir 1 cup steel-cut oats into 3 cups boiling, lightly salted water in saucepan.
- Cover pan and let sit overnight (or at least 2 hours) to hydrate and soften oats.
- Add 1 cup more liquid and simmer 5 minutes until thickened. Mix in flavorings and let rest for 5 minutes.
So, what’s the problem? That transformation takes about 40 minutes, and not many people can spare that kind of time on a busy morning. That’s where my steel-cut oat cooking method comes in. The night before, I bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan; remove it from the heat; stir in 1 cup of oats; cover the saucepan; and let it sit. Unattended, the oats swell and soften. Then, in the morning, I simply stir in another cup of liquid and simmer until the oatmeal is heated through and starch has thickened the liquid to a creamy consistency, which takes about 5 minutes. Stir in a few accents, and you’re ready to eat.
My new recipes would skew savory, but I didn’t want to rely simply on salty toppings and mix-ins; I wanted these oats to be imbued with umami. In my earlier recipes, that cup of liquid I added in the morning was usually sweet: apple cider, orange juice, or carrot juice sweetened further with brown sugar. But now I realized there were other options. Using stock instead of juice would give my oats a rich, flavorsome backbone. And why stop there? What about Worcestershire sauce or vinegar to take the savory a step further?
Salty, rich cheese would add even more body and oomph to some recipes, and I envisioned variations featuring sautéed vegetables or alliums such as shallots and scallions too. Savory oatmeal was turning out to be at least as broad a canvas as sweet oatmeal.
One Formula, Three Breakfasts
In the end, I came up with three new recipes. The first was inspired by a go-to pasta recipe: cacio e pepe. I started the oats with water, but in the morning I stirred in generous amounts of Pecorino and pepper, which gave the oats a deeply savory flavor. A little lemon juice augmented the cheese’s tang, and a topping of peas provided visual appeal and pops of grassy sweetness. A final sprinkle of Pecorino and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil sealed the deal.
Build Your Own Bowl
Diced ham, rotisserie chicken, sautéed Spam, baked tofu, crumbled bacon, tinned fish
Chopped olives, furikake, kimchi, dashi, miso, soy sauce, fish sauce, tamari, hoisin sauce, Marmite
Fresh herbs, scallions, chopped bell peppers or asparagus, shelled edamame, pesto
Crispy shallots or garlic, chili crisp, toasted sunflower seeds, corn nuts, smoked almonds
Dukkah, curry powder, ras el hanout, hot sauce, mustard, sriracha, chili oil
The second recipe was an homage to nachos. I stirred chicken broth and chili powder into the hydrated oats, and as that bubbled, I sautéed some corn and shallot in a skillet. I stirred these in, along with a big handful of salty cotija and some pickled jalapeños for tangy heat. I topped this bowl with spicy salsa, cooling avocado, and grassy cilantro. (A drizzle of hot sauce wouldn’t go amiss.)
My third recipe boasted the deepest umami flavor yet. As in the other recipes, I added the oats to 3 cups of boiling water, but I also slipped some chopped dried porcini mushrooms into the mix. Overnight, the musky, woodsy flavor of the mushrooms soaked to the very center of each grain. In the morning I upped the savory ante by stirring in a cup of beef broth, some Worcestershire sauce, and some sherry vinegar, along with some sliced scallion whites and a bit of garlic I’d softened quickly in a butter‑slicked skillet. This one tasted plenty hearty, but I took it even further by topping it with a soft-cooked egg.