For years, oatmeal has had the unfortunate reputation as being boring, but the humble grain is finally getting the respect it deserves. Forget froufrou toppings and fancy milks—taking the right approach to the oat itself can transform the ancient grain into something subtle, hearty and alluring. Step one: Soak your oats.
Soaking oats used to be par for the course in oatmeal instructions, but in the 1920s, convenience began to trump tradition (and flavor). As the demand for quick-cooking oats grew, the soaking step was eventually removed. So why go back to a method that's as old timey as a hand-cranked telephone?
Giving oats an overnight soak in the refrigerator allows them to soften into a muesli-like consistency that's ready to go with your yogurt the next morning or to blend straight into a smoothie. Use a one-to-one ratio of water to oats, experiment with sweeter liquids like apple juice or squeeze in lemon or apple cider vinegar for additional brightness. For added texture, throw in some chia seeds with your oats while they soak. Other nuts and seeds like pepitas, flax seeds and raw almonds are welcome to join, too, making for a more interesting breakfast bowl with a variety of textures and flavors. Soaked oats will keep up to five days, so make a big batch to have on hand all week.
Still too ho-hum for you? Try fermenting oats, a simple process that produces a unique flavor and allows you to keep oats for longer. Pamela Yung, pastry chef at Semilla in Brooklyn, uses a typical lacto-fermentation process, soaking her oats overnight in a cup of water with two tablespoons of yogurt or whey in a cheesecloth-sealed container at room temperature. "It's a subtle transformation," she says. "It makes the oat flavor more prominent and provides a sour note." Fermented oats can keep up to a week, and their tangy flavor will deepen the longer they're left at room temperature.
At Semilla, Yung transforms the fermented oats into a savory dessert by bringing them to a boil with additional water and allowing them to simmer with a touch of salt, whey, butter, maple sugar and buttermilk. The resulting porridge is served with a beet and red wine reduction and brown butter ice cream.
Of course, all the soaking and fermenting in the world won't do you any good if you're not using high-quality oats. Yung makes an effort to work with a variety of smaller purveyors, such as Anson Mills or Maine Grains, whose stone-milling process preserves the nutritional content of the oats and coaxes out delicious and unique flavors. If you can, look for local oats; if they're not available near you, rolled oats are your next best bet. They have a serious depth of flavor and a more interesting texture than the instant stuff.