Oats: A Baker’s Secret Weapon

By Stacey Ballis

Oats are a secret weapon for bakers in the know. Want to take your chocolate chip cookie from basic to bold? Oats bring nutty chewiness to the party and amp up both the flavor and texture. Need your next streusel to sing? Stir in some oats, and watch your muffins and coffee cakes go next level. And every fruit filling in the land of crumbles wants some toasty oats to snuggle under. 

This powerhouse grain has been sustaining people for millennia. Oats are one of the healthiest and most nutrient-dense grains you can eat, with plenty of fiber and protein rounding out the vitamins. But the best thing about oats is their delicious flavor. And they are simply an amazing ingredient for baking. They can also be a bit confusing, though. Half of the oat products available are in the cereal aisle and half are in the baking aisle. So, if you want to incorporate oats into your next culinary project, where do you start? First off, you need to know the different products available and how to use them to their fullest potential. 

Steel-cut oats are just whole oat grains that have been chopped up with steel blades for a coarse and chunky texture. So, adding soaked steel-cut oats to whole-grain breads will give you nutty flavor and a hearty structure. They can also sub in for chopped nuts like walnuts if you are baking for someone with a nut allergy. When shopping for steel-cut, look for Scottish or Irish oats if you can find them. Both the Scots and the Irish are famous for their oats, and with good reason. The Irish steel-cut oats are a bit coarser, while the Scottish tend to have a greater mix of large and small bits, so a more varied texture when cooked. While of course they are well-known in their uses as breakfast porridges, these oats are worth seeking out for baking. They have a wonderful, rich flavor, and you can play with the two textures to find out which version is best for your various bakes. These will most often be found in the cereal aisle.

Rolled or old-fashioned oats (look in the baking aisle) are oat grains that have been passed whole through giant rollers, flattening them out to thin disks. They are the champion of all cookies and bars, the perfect topping for a crumble, and the hero of granola. Old-fashioned oats are the most versatile of all available oat products for your baking pantry, and you can keep them stored in your freezer for up to six months, so don’t be afraid to stock up. 

Oat flour is created when the grain is finely milled and the bran removed, creating a flour similar in texture to wheat flour. Oat flour can be subbed in for part of the wheat flour in a lot of baking projects to add a bit more punch. It is especially great in muffins or sweet breads that incorporate spices, or in particularly moist bakes like carrot cake or zucchini bread. Try it as an addition to pancake batter to up your breakfast game. Or use oat flour in your next batch of cookies to make them gluten-free.

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