Steel Cut, Rolled, Instant: What's the Difference Between Types of Oats?

Here's a breakdown of different types of oats. Among whole grains, oats offer serious nutrition. But are some healthier than others? We take a look.

We should all be eating more whole grains; they're one of the keys to a healthy diet. And among whole grains, oats are heavy hitters, delivering serious nutrition plus powerful cholesterol-lowering benefits. But what are the different types of oats, and are some types of oats better than others? Let's take a look at the different types of oats and how to use them in recipes.

Rolled Oats vs Steel-Cut Oats

The main difference between rolled oats and steel-cut oats is how they're manufactured. Both types begin as whole oats (groats), from which the outer layer (the hull) is stripped, leaving the fiber-rich bran, the endosperm, and the germ, which is home to vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and healthy oils. From there, the oats are either rolled or steel-cut.

What Are Rolled Oats?

To make rolled oats, the whole grains are steamed and pressed flat with steel rollers. The rolling process shortens the cooking time. You'll find three kinds of rolled oats at the supermarket.

Types of Rolled Oats

1. Old-Fashioned Oats: To create old-fashioned oats, the whole grains are steamed, flattened by the roller, and then flaked. We typically enjoy them as oatmeal, or add them to baked goods, but they can also be utilized as a coating for meats. Of the three types of rolled oats, old-fashioned oats have the most texture.

2. Quick-Cooking Oats: When quick-cooking oats are made, the oats are cooked, dried, and cut, then rolled thin (thinner than old-fashioned oats) for faster cooking.

3. Instant Oats: The oats are cooked and dried before being cut and rolled thin. Instant oats are the fastest oats of all, though they can sometimes be gummy or mushy. Read the label of instant oats; they can be less healthy than other types of rolled oats if sugars, salt, and other ingredients are added to the mix.

Clockwise: Quick-cooking oats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats, instant oats.

What Are Steel-Cut Oats?

Sometimes called Irish oats or Scottish oats, steel-cut oats aren't rolled. Instead, steel blades slice them into coarse nubs, giving them an appearance like cut-up grains of rice. Steel-cut oats are less processed than rolled oats. They take longer to cook than rolled oats, and their texture is a bit chewier. This also means that steel-cut oats contain slightly more nutrients than their rolled counterparts. Beyond hot cereal, steel-cut oats are good candidates for cooking in stews and soups — they absorb less water than rolled oats — or for adding to meatloaves and even stuffings.

Which Oats Are Healthier?

Because steel-cut oats are less processed, they are healthier than rolled oats. However, that difference is only slight. The biggest threat to your oats' nutritional value lies in what is added to them. Instant oats, for example, can be loaded with sugar, salt, and preservatives. The bottom line is that oats are a fantastic addition to your diet.

Oats' main claim to fame is soluble fiber, which helps prevent cholesterol from being absorbed — and oats are loaded with it. Soluble fiber is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and with helping to lower blood cholesterol, particularly the LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Oat fiber may have additional benefits — helping to control blood sugar, improve insulin sensitivity, and even lower blood pressure.

But that's just the beginning. Oats are a complex carbohydrate, so they'll keep you feeling full longer than simple carbs. And get this, oats have twice the protein as brown rice. They also offer iron, thiamin, zinc, magnesium, and selenium.

And the good news is that because both types of oats — rolled or steel-cut — includes the whole grain, they offer essentially the same impressive health benefits.

Are Oats Gluten Free?

Oats themselves are naturally gluten free, making them a great option for people with celiac disease. However, processed oats can become contaminated with gluten if they're processed in facilities that are shared with grains that do contain gluten, like wheat, barley, and rye. It's also possible for oats to become contaminated if they're grown adjacent to gluten-containing grains.

If you have a serious gluten allergy, it's best to purchase pure oats that aren't processed alongside other grains. There are a number of manufacturers, such as Bob's Red Mill, that produce guaranteed gluten-free oats that are processed in separate facilities.

For more whole-grain goodness, check out our collection of oat recipes.

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