(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Usually, I am all about cooking shortcuts. But for the longest time, for whatever reason, I insisted on making my oatmeal on the stove top. Most of the time, what I got was a feeling that I had expended way too much effort on something that should have been simple, not to mention oatmeal that wasn't at the consistency I wanted. Oh, and a messy saucepan that inevitably involved milk burned on the bottom.
Maybe it's because my husband had taken on the mantle of official oatmeal maker (and pot scrubber). But by the time we had a baby and needed a fast, nutritious breakfast before running out the door to day care and work, I knew I had to perfect a method I had starting tinkering with while I was on maternity leave.
According to some in-house data collected by oats powerhouse Quaker, 53 percent of consumers make their oatmeal (using instant or rolled oats) in the microwave, 40 percent on the stove top and 2 percent each in the slow cooker or using an overnight method.
I am an old-fashioned rolled oats partisan. I prefer that bit of hearty chew provided by the rolled oats. Plus, per ounce, they're cheaper than instant and just as easy to cook in the microwave. And you don't need those instant flavoured single servings and their extraneous packaging. With these tips, you'll be able to make great oatmeal and customise the flavours and toppings so they're exactly the way you like them.
1. Think about the bowl
Boiled-over oatmeal in the microwave is annoying and messy. A shallow bowl I used for a while was wide enough to spread everything out so it couldn't bubble over, but the oats came out tough and overcooked. I had better luck once I switched to a narrower but taller bowl. It holds about 4 cups and more closely mimics a saucepan, leading to creamy, more porridge-like oatmeal. Until you've nailed your strategy and quantities down and know the oatmeal won't escape the bowl, it's best to keep an eye on the microwave. If you're close to over-boiling, simply stop the microwave and let the bubbles subside. Even in a smaller bowl, I've managed to make an excellent batch, microwaving in bursts as needed.
2. Start with the recommendations and go from there
Quaker and others suggest a 2-to-1 ratio of liquid to oats. That's about how I like it, though I often slightly increase the oats to get a thicker consistency. The back-of-the-box instructions also recommend microwaving for 1 ½ minutes, which I have found vastly insufficient for my tastes. If you like a soupy bowl, the lesser time might work for you. The sweet spot for me (tested on my home microwave and the one in The Washington Post's Food Lab) is closer to 4 minutes. Again, you'll need to play around and find what you like. Keep in mind that the oatmeal will thicken as it cools and absorbs more liquid.
3. Pick your liquid of choice
Water, milk, almond milk, coconut milk: It all will work. I really like the flavour imparted by coconut milk but prefer the way the oatmeal thickens with dairy.
4. Add some ingredients before cooking
Timing does matter here. Cookbook author Laura Lea says she prefers to add most ingredients after cooking to preserve flavour (especially vanilla extract), but there are certain items that work well when added to the dried oats.
She recommends sea salt, mashed ripe banana, frozen fruit and cocoa powder (a new favourite of mine). Also, consider thickeners such as protein powder or chia seeds; I often add flaxseeds at this point, too. I like to add dried berries before cooking because they plump up nicely.
5. Others go in after
Once the oatmeal comes out of the microwave (careful, the bowl will be hot!), Lea suggests additions such as nut butters, tahini, maple syrup (a must for me), honey, extracts (almond, vanilla, etc.), cinnamon, coconut oil, fresh fruit, cacao nibs, nuts or seeds, chocolate chips, yogurt, coconut flakes and jam or jelly.
If your tastes lean savoury, this could be when you put in avocado, roasted vegetables, olive oil, butter, cheese, herbs and a fried or poached egg.
One appliance, one bowl, so many possibilities. And not another pot to scrub. My mornings are better already.