Oats, like barley, have a hard outer hull that must be removed before it's ready for human consumption. Even though the outer hull of an oat kernel comes off easier than a barley kernel's hull, it's still not within reach of the average consumer to accomplish this. For this reason, if you want whole oats to eat, purchase them already hulled.
Hulled oats, called oat groats, look very much like rye or Triticale. Unlike barley which must have it's hull sanded off damaging the seed, an oat groat kernel's outer bran layer is still intact after de-hulling. This somewhat protects the inner nutrients and also permits it to sprout. From this stage of processing, oats are most often rolled. Sometimes they are cut into two to four pieces before rolling and are called ‘steel cut rolled oats,' or quick rolled oats. Opening the seed in this way permits oxidation of the inner nutrients causing them to go rancid.
Long ago, it was learned if oat groats were steamed first destroying the enzymes that permitted rancidity to happen, the rolled oats could be stored for long periods of time and stay fresh. We've heard more than one story of a family opening up a well stored 25 year old can of rolled oats thinking they'd only be good to feed the chickens. But to their surprise, their rolled oats were still fresh and wholesome after all that time.
Oats have been around for quite some time, dating back to around 2,000 B.C. in the Middle East. Oats date back in Germany to 1,000 B.C. and because oats contain little gluten, they were considered not good for much more than animal feed. However, because oats can grow in conditions where wheat and barley won't produce, they made a place for themselves though history during harsh years and were considered a grain for the poor. Today, about 95% of all oats grown are used as animal feed.
With a relatively high soluble and insoluble fiber content of 10%, oats are an excellent food in lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of heart disease. Containing over 4 times the fatty acids of wheat, oats can be considered a high calorie food containing 19% more calories than wheat. One third of those fats are the polyunsaturated type which are required for good health. Oats are also rich in the B vitamins, contain the anti-oxidant vitamin E and oats are mineral rich as well.
Oats are considered a 'cleansing grain.' They not only cleanse your intestinal tract but your blood as well. Oats contain an excellent balance of amino acids. It's proteins are almost in perfect proportion to the body's needs. High in lysine which is often low in other cereal grains, oats bring a real balance to your protein needs without the need of mixing foods. Oats contain high levels of complex carbohydrates which have been linked to reducing the risk of cancer and the better control of diabetes.
In the grocery stores of North America, oats are most often found as either regular or quick rolled oats. However, if you have a flaker, you can produce your own rolled oats from oat groats producing a fresher, tastier, and more nutritious cereal. You can also run oat groats through your grain grinder to get oat flour for baking or for use in other dishes. Using 25% oat flour, the natural vitamin E in oats will help keep your breads from going stale so quickly. Oat flour can also be used as a preservative for ice cream and other dairy products (it's that vitamin E again). It's also used as a talc replacer in skin care products.
Oat bran contains glucans, a cholesterol lowering chemical through a mechanism still unclear to the scientific community. This soluble fiber in oat bran may also aid in regulating blood sugar levels by forming gels that slow the absorption of glucose sugar in the intestinal tract. It only takes 2 minutes to cook oat bran in boiling water. It's almost a convenience food when thinking of things to have for breakfast.
It takes about 10-15 minutes to cook regular rolled oats. Quick rolled oats, being thinner, cook much quicker in 2-3 minutes. And instant rolled oats, which have already been cooked then dehydrated, just need hot water added. As instant rolled oats are the least nutritious, you should think seriously about using them in your every day cooking habits instead of using the slower cooking quick oats. Instant oats certainly have their place, however, such as on camping trips and in your 72 hour kits.
Using rolled oats as a meat extender in meat loafs is a well known practice. And then there's oatmeal cookies. But aside from eating oatmeal for breakfast, oats aren't used too much in mainstream North America today. This is too bad as oats are so extremely healthy! The Scots and Irish base much of their cooking on oats, showing us Americans by good example that oats are a more versatile food than we seem to think. Oat flour makes rich thickeners for soups, gravies and stews. Oat flour will also add nutrition to your breads, muffins, crackers, beverages and desserts. And everybody knows oats are the main ingredient in granola.
Because of the antioxidants in oats, they are a good storing grain. However, for best storage conditions, pack them in airtight containers, use oxygen absorbers and store them in a cool place.