Article Thumbnail

Does It Matter If My Oats Are Steel Cut?

Because I usually buy the microwavable stuff and slam it down with a plastic spoon

You’ve roamed into the hot breakfast cereal aisle, and your eyes latch onto the standard savior of your morning — a container of the glorious quick one-minute oats from Quaker. You reflexively scoop up the container and toss it into your cart, just as you do during pretty much every other trip to the grocery store.

But when your eyes drift downward to the steel-cut oats, you begin to wonder if you’re missing out on something. After all, there’s not a single breakfast menu these days whose oatmeal doesn’t include steel-cut oats; not to mention, they sound like the hearty, early-morning sustenance of an old-timey Pennsylvania steelworker that will provide some secret source of oaty super strength.

Where did steel-cut oats even come from?

Steel-cut oats are really just a minimalist oat variety that have an association with the Irish, and have often been historically referred to as pinhead oats or Irish oats. They’re the full groats of oats with the hulls removed, that have also been chopped into two or three pieces with steel blades, hence the “steel-cut” terminology. They usually take at least 20 minutes to cook properly (unless they’ve undergone additional processing), and are often used to make porridge. They’re said to be nuttier and chewier than other types of oats, and they retain most of the key parts of the oat, including the bran, endosperm and germ. Basically, they’re the least processed oats commonly available on the market.

Despite their association with the breakfast tables of the Irish, if you venture back 100 years or more, steel-cut oats were most prominently used as an ingredient in the animal feed employed on most American farms. In a 1915 edition of Montana’s Fergus County Democrat newspaper, one contributing writer in the “Of Interest to Farmers” section stated the following: “Now our experience with steel cut oatmeal has been nothing but good; we have at present a flock of chicks raised almost exclusively on steel cut oatmeal, sour milk and a little wheat, and we never had chicks do better.”

This sentiment was echoed by a similar column in a 1920 edition of The Modesto Bee, entitled “Steel Cut Oats Is the Best Feed.” After first lamenting the expense of steel-cut oats relative to other feed sources, the writer said this: “For young chicks, however, no better grain can be fed, and the steel-cut oats are far better than rolled oatmeal or the so-called breakfast rolled oats.”

Sixty years later, with the bulk of the U.S. population having relocated to urban centers or retreated to the suburbs, people were writing letters to the editor of their local newspapers asking what could be done with the steel-cut oats they’d been gifted. One letter that made its way into the nationally syndicated “Polly’s Pointers” column received a reply that’s likely to have underscored the reluctance of most people to engage with the steel-cut cousin of everyday oatmeal — again, the fact that the oats needed to be simmered in water for at least 20 minutes until they were fit for consumption. As the legendary philosopher Sweet Brown once immaculately stated, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

I heard that Scotch oats are the same thing.

First of all, to quote the late, great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Scotch is what a Scotsman drinks, son.” That doesn’t mean that folks haven’t gotten it wrong from time to time, including the great folks at Quaker Oats, who expertly summarized the difference between Irish and Scotch oats in the advertisement seen here:

1925 Quaker Oats Advertisement

As you can see, a century ago, Quaker was defining both of its standard offerings as the epitome of a Scottish-style oatmeal — in essence, the quick-and-less-dirty method to making oatmeal. By this logic, Scottish oats are now the foundation for the de facto mainstream oatmeal formula. What this advertisement doesn’t tell you is how the Scottish-ness of the oats is achieved, specifically by rolling and flattening them, thereby stripping them of their bran.

Understood. But what can steel-cut oats do for me that regular oats can’t?

Well, the easiest way to get to the bottom of this is to do a quick tale of the tape.

A one-third cup of Quaker steel-cut oats and half a cup of Quaker old-fashioned oats are each considered a full serving, which should immediately clue you in that on a cup-by-cup basis of volume measurement, steel-cut oats are far more nutrient-dense than old-fashioned oats. However, when we deal with oats in terms of raw weight, on a per-gram basis, in every category that matters on a nutrition label, the two varieties are either identical, or nearly identical. For example, both oat varieties are 3.7 calories per gram, with steel-cut oats containing a bit more thiamine and phosphorus. 

The only major areas where the nutrient variance might make a difference to someone — and I mean a very slight difference — is in the areas of fiber and on the glycemic index scale. Steel-cut oats have 20 percent more fiber than rolled oats, which sounds impressive until you realize it’s a difference of one gram of fiber per serving. Similarly, steel-cut oats are also absorbed by the body a bit more slowly, leading to a slower increase in blood sugar compared with the rise caused by rolled oats. But, again, we’re talking about the difference between the blood sugar increase caused by different varieties of oats, not the difference between steel-cut oats and a McDonald’s baked apple pie.

So should I eat steel-cut oats?

Suspiciously, Quaker now sells three-minute steel-cut oats, which leads me to suspect that they now pre-soak their oats before placing them in containers, drastically reducing their preparation time in the process. What this means is, when you get right down to it, for most consumers, we’re going to be talking about minor differences in taste, not drastic differences in nutrition.

If you prefer that your oats have a nutty flavor or chewy texture, or the constitution of your baked goods necessitates an oat variety that knits them together in a fashion that is as exact as it is enticing, steel-cut oats are probably for you. However, if you’re just looking for a relatively healthy base of grain upon which to dump a few chocolate chips, a dash of cinnamon or a sprinkling of brown sugar, any of the common oat varieties on the market will do the trick — no steel of any kind required.