“Overnight” often means getting something in a hurry, like a package you ordered online. But with oats, it means the opposite. Overnight oats are currently having a moment as a breakfast fad, but the dish is based on a very old concept: You can prepare grains by soaking them, rather than cooking them.
To make overnight oats, you add liquid like milk, yogurt or water to some oats and wait until morning. By then, the oats will be as soft as if they were cooked on the stovetop. It’s a great way to get your fiber without slowing down your morning or burning your tongue.
Part of the fun of this passive porridge is dressing it up with fruit, nuts, sweet syrups or anything else you might put in hot or cold cereal. This time of year, frozen berries are on sale while distributors clear out last year’s inventory ahead of the new crops of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries that are on the verge of being harvested. As it happens, frozen berries are perfect for overnight oats. Add them at night, straight out of the freezer. By morning, they will be fully soft and integrated into the dish.
Rolled oats are the softest of all grain options. They’ll be ready so quickly that you don’t even need to wait all night. If you don’t mind chewing a little, you can dive in right away and eat your oats like corn flakes. Steel-cut oats, where the grain is chopped rather than rolled, need a much longer time to soak, just as they take longer to cook.
And then there are all the other grains — whole and in parts. They all soften at different rates and have different textures and flavors. Rolled flakes generally soften the quickest. I’ve also had good luck with mixes like seven-grain and five-grain cereals.
To get to know the personality of each grain, I try it in plain water first, preferably in a lineup with other grains for comparison. My favorite grains for overnight soaking are a combination of rye and spelt flakes. Both are varieties of wheat, and both take all night to soften. The rye is more complex, assertive and coarse, while the spelt is mellow and smooth. Together they form a combination that’s soft yet firm without being mushy. Whichever grains you choose, adding some chia seeds will give your mixture a pudding-like stiffness.
Finally, you must choose your liquid. While water is enough to satisfy the most Spartan grain eaters, the majority prefers something creamier. Milk is one option, as are milk-like fluids made from nuts, grains and legumes. There’s a certain symmetry and simplicity to adding oat milk to your overnight oats. Soy milk and almond milk are thicker. Some have vanilla flavor already added in, but you can also add it on your own. You can mix and match the soaking mediums to your heart’s content, but my favorite of all is plain yogurt. It’s thick and creamy, and the acidity helps the grains along their journey.
Ultimately, the proper consistency and flavor of cereal is a very subjective and personal choice, as is the presence or absence of gluten and other factors. Personal preference should guide the details of how you prepare your overnight grains. I’ll leave you with a recipe for my preferred formulation of overnight grains, in the hopes that you’ll take it and transform it and make it your own.
This recipe is a template for any type of overnight grain, with any type of soaking liquid and any type of topping. My way results in a kind of cake/pudding that I’m happy to wash down with coffee and repeat.
Makes one serving
Combine the spelt, rye and chia seeds in a bowl. Add the yogurt and stir it all together. Add the blueberries and the sweetener if using, then stir again. Cover the bowl and put it in the fridge overnight. The next morning, enjoy your bowl of soft, sweet, chewy, tangy grains.
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