Oats: Steel-Cut Vs. Rolled, Which Is Best?

Old-fashioned oats, instant, rolled, steel-cut, quick, müesli, ground, steamed, Scottish, Irish?

What do they all mean? So many oats, so little time. Since many of our recipes feature this heart-healthy super grain, let’s break down all of our oat options. Steel-cut oats have been in the spotlight lately, but are they actually healthier than traditional rolled oats?

Before you get wrapped up in the hype, know that either are a fantastic breakfast option, and both come from the same starting point. And we’ve got some insider information for you: The only difference is their processing.

Are Oats Gluten-Free?

Speaking of processing, we have some important information about oats’ gluten content: They don’t have any! Oats are naturally gluten-free. However, many stores sell oatmeal that’s labeled as gluten-free. This is because while oats themselves are gluten-free, they’re often processed in facilities that also process gluten, and contamination can occur. If you’re trying to eat less gluten or on a gluten-free diet for health reasons, you can probably continue to buy regular oats without too much trouble. But if you have Celiac disease or are gluten-free for a similar reason, we’d definitely recommend ordering gluten-free oats!

Oats, Groats

While there’s several varieties of oatmeal, they all come from the same plant. Oats are a grain from the cereal family; their cousins are barley and wheat. The oat kernel grows up inside a tough husk or “hull” which is later shucked. Once the hull is shucked, you’re left with the oat groat. The whole groat contains the oat bran and germ, which are packed with nutritional value.

From that whole oat groat, the sorting begins. Some groats are flattened/rolled into flakes and steamed. This is how we get rolled oats, otherwise known as old-fashioned oats. When old-fashioned oats are cut into smaller pieces, that’s where we get instant oats, also known as quick-cooking oats. Because they’re in smaller pieces, instant oats lose some of the fiber that old-fashioned oats offer. However, they’re known as quick-cooking oats for a reason: they can be made in about a minute, making them a convenient breakfast or snack. But speaking of convenience, you’ll want to watch out for packets of quick-cooking or instant oatmeal, which can have as much sugar as some breakfast cereals!

What about steel-cut oats? Steel-cut oats are made when, you guessed it, the oat groats are cut through two or three times with a steel blade. That steel blade is how steel-cut oats get their name! So even though all different types of oatmeal are made from whole grain oats, the difference is in how they’re processed. That processing difference is what gives the different types of oatmeal different textures.

You might have also heard of Scottish oats, also known as Irish oatmeal. The main difference between Irish oatmeal and other types of oatmeal is that the whole-grain oat groats are ground without being steamed or flattened first. This makes them somewhat similar to steel-cut oats, except that Scottish oats are ground, rather than cut. This creates finely-ground oats with a texture coarser than flour. Then, to cook the Irish oatmeal, those cereal grains are cooked over the stove, and result in oatmeal that has a texture like porridge. Irish oatmeal is considered the primary type of oats in the United Kingdom, but it’s less common here in the U.S., which is why we’re focusing on steel-cut, quick-cooking and old-fashioned oats. But if this type of oats sounds like something you’d like to try, you can find them at most U.S. grocery stores.

Why We Love Oatmeal

No matter which of the different types of oatmeal you choose, know that you’re getting great health benefits from his whole grain hot cereal! Oats are great because they are packed with thiamine, iron, antioxidants, and lots of soluble fiber. Oats also contain a type of fiber called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is found in the cell walls of plants, like oats and barley. It’s even sometimes used as medicine, for its ability to reduce high blood pressure (and therefore the risk of heart attacks). Thanks to beta-glucan and other complex carbs found in oats, they can stabilize our blood sugar levels and slow digestion, to make us feel more full. When your digestive enzymes encounter beta-glucan, they essentially turn it into a gel that helps slow digestion. Pretty cool, right? Oatmeal also has a low-glycemic index, which means it won’t cause your blood sugar to spike. Just be wary of all of the sugar added to quick-cooking oatmeal packets.

Steel-cut vs. Rolled Oatmeal

Between people looking to get the most out of their oatmeal, there’s a hot debate about which type of oatmeal is best. Steel-cut, quick-cook and rolled oats are fairly comparable per half-cup serving in protein, carbs, fiber, fat, calcium, iron, and nearly equal in sugar. Steel-cut oats have just slightly fewer calories than rolled. You’ll find that there are very few major differences between steel-cut oats and rolled. One major difference between the two is actually in the texture and taste: steel-cut oats tend to have a chewier texture and nuttier flavor than rolled. Quick-cooking oats have far less taste and texture to remark on, because they’re designed for the convenience of their cooking time, rather than flavor. But they’re definitely nice to have on-hand in a pinch!

While the nutritional value looks pretty similar, from grams of protein to grams of carbs, one key fact is that steel-cut oats are less processed, since they are never flattened by heat or pressure. Because they’re bigger pieces, your body takes longer to digest them. Not only do you feel fuller longer, your glycemic index will thank you. Steel-cut oats take a bit more time to digest, taking longer to convert to sugar. This prevents your body from dreaded sugar spikes (and crashes). If you have type two diabetes, then you may want to go the extra mile – and take the extra cooking time – for steel-cut.

But hey, both steel-cut and rolled oats are a whole grain with a solid amount of grams of protein per half-cup serving. And both reduce – and actually remove – bad cholesterol from your heart. Not many foods can move mountains like oats can!

You Decide

OK, are steel-cut oats really worth it? We say taste them for yourself! They do take a bit longer to cook, especially compared to instant oats, and they can’t be made in the microwave, so they require boiling and stirring every couple minutes. Some steel-cut lovers suggest soaking them overnight or making them in your crockpot! You can give them a try and see what you like. And if steel-cut oats aren’t for you, rolled oats are still a fantastic, nutrition-packed choice. 

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