There is a certain beauty in discovering a shortcut that is both convenient and just as good — if not better — than the real thing.
Steel-cut oats normally require a good ten to twenty minutes of stovetop simmering to render them creamy and soft. This is worth the effort for a fantastic bowl of oatmeal, but let’s be real here: not many of us have that kind of time in the morning.
Overnight oats, on the other hand, only require you to mix the oats with water and let them hang out together in the fridge overnight. A minute or two in the microwave the next morning, and you’re good to go. For a not-at-all-morning person such as myself, this is game-changing.
Discovering the Best Overnight Oats Ever
I never would have tried overnight oats if I hadn’t stopped for breakfast at the Brick Oven Bakery in Northfield, Minnesota the last time I was home. Full disclosure: the bakery is owned by my dad, who is primarily invested in providing artisan loaves of sourdough to the Minnesotan masses, but was recently convinced to add a few more breakfast items to his menu.
This bowl of oatmeal was so perfectly creamy and flavorful that I dragged my dad and his chef out of the back room to tell me how they made it. They rattled off their ingredients (steel-cut oats, water, some toppings) and basic method (simmer until done), none of which seemed to explain why my bowl of oatmeal was so darn good.
Just as I was growing flummoxed, the chef mentioned, “Oh, and we let the oats soak overnight.” Bingo.
Why Overnight Oats Are So Good
Overnight soaking gives the oats time to absorb their cooking liquid, whether that’s water or milk. Since they’re already fully saturated with liquid, all you really need to do is heat them up.
In fact, you don’t even need to heat them up if you don’t want to; after soaking, the raw grains are delightfully chewy and great as a cold breakfast on a hot day.
I also feel that overnight soaking helps the grains cook more evenly, leading to the creamy, smooth texture that made me fall in love with my bowl of oatmeal at the Brick Oven.
Single Serving Overnight Oats!
One more bonus: Making oats this way allows you to make just one single-serving of oats at a time. Since it’s normally just me by myself eating breakfast and I’m not a fan of reheating oats from a big batch, I really appreciate this!
Steel Cut Oats or Old Fashioned Oats?
Both steel-cut oats and old fashioned rolled oats work just fine with this method (and with the same ratios of liquid to oats). Use whichever one you prefer.
How to Make the Best Overnight Oats
Overnight oats are nothing new on the Internet, and I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm for them. Do a quick search on Pinterest and you’ll find enough oatmeal inspiration to last you through a decade of breakfasts.
To settle on the very best method, I tested the oats with a variety of different oat-to-water ratios, with different liquids in place of the water, with both steel-cut and regular old-fashioned rolled oats, and after different soaking times.
In the end, I decided that the simplest method was also the best:
- Ratio of 1/4 cup oats (steel cut or old-fashioned) to 1/2 cup water
- Overnight soak
- About a minute in the microwave
This has become my new standard for a good bowl of oatmeal.
Swaps & Substitutions for Overnight Oats
- Swap in some milk: Dairy milk, almond milk, or any other milk will definitely work in place of water, but I felt that the oats remained chewier after soaking and were less delightfully creamy after cooking. Personally, I prefer to soak in water and then stir a splash of milk or a spoonful of yogurt into the oats after cooking.
- Play with the ratio of water to oats. I found that 1/2 cup of water was perfect for making a fairly thick, sturdy bowl of oats. Going up to 3/4 cup of water makes a looser, softer, more porridge-like bowl of oats. One cup of liquid felt like too much, though this might be nice if you’d like something you can easily sip one-handed on your way to work.
How to Avoid Microwave Bubble-Ups
The only tricky moment with this recipe comes toward the end of cooking. You need the liquid to be very hot and almost boiling in order for the oatmeal to thicken up and become creamy, but once the liquid reaches a full boil in the microwave, the oats can easily bubble up and out of whatever container you are using.
To avoid this, particularly the first few times you make the oats, do this:
- Use a clear container that holds at least twice the volume of oats you are preparing (like a pint-sized canning jar)
- Watch with an eagle eye as you microwave the oats. If you see any sign that the oats are starting to bubble up, stop microwaving immediately.
Once you’ve done this a few times in the same microwave, you’ll have a good idea for exactly when the oats are done and can potentially start to bubble up. In my microwave, I’ve found that 1 minute and 20 seconds in my microwave is perfect. Yours might be slightly less or slightly more.
Just out of the microwave, the oats might still look a little loose and watery — this is fine. Let them stand for a few minutes and they will thicken up.
Last but not least, pile on any toppings you like with your oatmeal and dig in!
Best Toppings for Overnight Oats
In my opinion, oatmeal is 99% about the delicious toppings stir into your bowl. Here are some favorite suggestions:
- Sweeteners: Brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or other sweetener
- Dried fruit, like dried cherries, cranberries, or figs
- Fresh fruit, like raspberries, blue berries, bananas, apples, or pears
- Chopped nuts, like pecans, pistachios, walnuts, or almonds
- Splash of milk, cream, creme fraiche, or yogurt
Notes on Batch Cooking:
- Making a week’s worth of breakfasts: The recipe below makes one single serving of oatmeal. I often prepare several single-serving batches in canning jars and refrigerate them for quick breakfasts through the week. The oats soaking in their liquid will keep for at least 5 days, refrigerated.
- Larger batches: Scale up the ingredients to the number of servings you’d like to make (at least 4 or more servings) and combine in a large container. Refrigerate overnight, stirring a few times whenever you remember. The next morning, transfer the oats and liquid to a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until creamy and cooked through, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Stovetop Cooking: It’s difficult to cook a single serving of oatmeal on the stovetop. If you’d prefer to cook on the stovetop instead of in the microwave, I recommend preparing at least four servings at once. Follow the “Larger Batches” instructions above.
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Updated January 5, 2021 : We spiffed up this post to make it sparkle! No changes to the original recipe.