In its most detested form, oatmeal is gray, bland and pasty, the stuff of Dickensian orphanages and miserly boarding schools. But devotees of real oatmeal – oatmeal with integrity – know better.

But oatmeal isn’t monolithic; it takes many forms. Instant oats can be one-dimensional and cardboardy, and rolled oats too assertively broad and flat. It’s the toothsome steel-cut oats, with their beguiling creamy-chewy texture and deeper flavor, that are worth waking up for. They don’t just stick to your ribs; they tickle them, too. With a smidgen of advance planning, you can even look forward to multiple oatmeal mornings from cooking up just one batch.

Steel-cut oats take longer to cook – up to an hour, in some cases – than most other forms of oats, so they’re not suited to whipping up on a morning whim. The wily among us have devised shortcuts to put us closer to our oatmeal bliss. Soaking the oats overnight can be helpful, as is a pressure cooker or a countertop rice cooker with a “porridge” setting.

I prefer to cook up a big pot of steel-cut oats on Sunday night as I’m making dinner, because I’m right there in the kitchen to give an occasional stir to the oatmeal bubbling lazily in the Dutch oven at my elbow. Then I let it cool, put it in the refrigerator and rewarm individual portions as needed throughout the week.

This means that on an otherwise unremarkable weekday morning, I can sit down to a glamorous bowl of grown-up oatmeal in less time than it takes to nuke a detestable packet of instant oatmeal. This method doesn’t require any special equipment, and you are able to cook the oats exactly as you please. I like mine cooked to death, but others prefer them just a wee bit al dente, like a good risotto.

Cooking steel-cut oats is essentially a matter of oats, water and gentle simmering, but a few minor tweaks lead to a far superior result. One is toasting the oats before adding the liquid, which brings out their nutty aroma. You can dry-toast the oats, but I prefer to do it in a little butter – about a tablespoon per cup of uncooked oats – to unleash their hidden butterscotch characteristics. The other key is to add a fat pinch of salt to the cooking oats, a tiny step that adds dimension and keeps the cooked oatmeal from tasting blase, especially if you cook your oats with water only.

Cinnamon and raisins are a good starting point, but the only limitation to oatmeal stir-ins is the inclusiveness of your pantry. Caramelized bananas, made with just three ingredients, take only a few minutes to prepare and are possibly the sexiest oatmeal topping on the planet. A tangy and colorful dried fruit compote dresses up the grayest oatmeal, and a crunchy caramelized sugar topping, borrowed from creme brulee, makes oatmeal an event.

You can do more with the leftover oatmeal than rewarm. Cooked porridge (another word for oatmeal) adds nutritional heft and a moist crumb to baked goods like muffins, pancakes and yeasted breads. If you have a regular (not Belgian) waffle iron, you can griddle leftover cooked oatmeal: Put a well-greased iron on a medium setting, spread or pour a thin layer of oatmeal on the bottom half, close the iron, and let cook about 5 minutes, until you wind up with something that’s crisp, lacy and golden-brown on the outside and chewy on the inside. But whatever form it takes, a day christened with oatmeal always starts well. Or ends well – I’ve been known to warm up a little oatmeal for dessert.

Oatmeal inspirations

Top with good-quality unsalted butter and unrefined sea salt for a savory grown-up version.

Stir in a tablespoon of almond, cashew or peanut butter for a protein boost.

Finely dice unpeeled pear or apple and stir in with maple syrup.

Swirl in diced dried figs and honey.

Add poached quince or pears with a little of their poaching liquid.

Grind a few tablespoons of flaxseed and sprinkle over the top.

Sprinkle with granola for a sweet crunch.

Stir in copious amounts of chunky applesauce and cinnamon.

Divide oatmeal among oven-safe serving dishes. Liberally sprinkle each dish with granulated sugar all across the top. Broil until the sugar is caramelized to make oatmeal brulee.


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