No, it’s not a sprinkle of cinnamon or a spoonful of coconut oil.

By Betty Gold
March 02, 2021
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When it comes to our most beloved fuss-free healthy breakfast dishes, oatmeal is right up there at the top with scrambled eggs and smoothies. Oatmeal is so simple to make and endlessly customizable—pile on pineapple and coconut flakes for a tropical twist, soak them while you sleep to wake up to overnight oats, or top your oatmeal with a fried egg and sriracha for a protein-packed savory spin. We like to think of oats as the original shelf-stable superfood—who needs to shell out for adaptogens, apple cider vinegar shots, and activated charcoal when a simple serving of oatmeal will keep your heart, gut, and immune system in shape on its own?

But even the best of breakfast bowls can fall a little flat, especially when your fridge isn't stocked with fresh fruit, herbs, eggs, and the other fixings.

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How to Upgrade a Basic of Oatmeal

The solution is simple: Give the raw oats a quick toasting. This will add depth, complexity, and a rich caramel-like flavor to your oats without having to toss in any additional ingredients.

The process is easy. Simply heat a skillet (nonstick or stainless steel works) over medium-high heat, toss in your raw oats, and toast them for several minutes. Stir frequently so they don't burn, and keep a close eye on their color—when they look slightly browned and are exuding an aromatic butterscotch-like scent, they're ready. Then continue preparing them as you would make any basic bowl of oatmeal. When it's ready, we promise you'll taste the difference.

This method works by way of the maillard reaction, or the interaction between amino acids—the building blocks of protein—and reducing sugars in foods. It's what's responsible for the browning of everything from meat and potatoes to chocolate chip cookies, waffles, and (yep) oats. The maillard reaction doesn't just involve a change in color; rather, it imparts the mouthwatering roasty, toasty aromas and flavors in dishes that make them so enticing.

By the way, this method doesn't just work for oatmeal. You can put those deliciously toasted oats to work in any recipe that calls for them, including oatmeal cookies, yogurt parfaits, breakfast bars, and homemade granola. For inspiration, see below.

Oat Recipes to Make as an Excuse to Try This Hack

Overnight Oats With Strawberries and Toasted Almonds
Credit: Jen Causey

Overnight Oats With Strawberries and Toasted Almonds

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Before you stir the oats with the milk, honey, vanilla, and salt and let them soak in the fridge overnight, give them a quick toss in a skillet. When you wake up to the best-tasting breakfast tomorrow, you'll know why. 

Maple, Pear, and Pecan Steel-Cut Oats
Credit: Brie Passano

Maple, Pear, and Pecan Steel-Cut Oats

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Sweetened with maple syrup and spiced with ground ginger and cinnamon, your toasted oats will add major rich, rounded flavor to this warming oatmeal breakfast bowl. And though we do love pecans, this dish would be equally as tasty with walnuts or almonds.

Savory Oatmeal With Spinach and Poached Eggs
Credit: Greg DuPree

Savory Oatmeal With Spinach and Poached Eggs

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You'll start making this savory poached egg and spinach bowl by browning and the oats in a skillet alongside chopped yellow onions, which gives them a divine risotto-like texture. Then stir in a generous pile of Parmesan to make the oats taste cheesy and rich. 

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Credit: Jennifer Causey

Fruit-and-Nut Energy Bars

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Before adding the oats for these fruity, nutty homemade granola bars to the food processor, give them a delicate toasting to really dial up their flavor.

Salted Oatmeal Cookies with Dark Chocolate
Credit: Roland Bello

Salted Oatmeal Cookies With Dark Chocolate

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We'd be remiss not to include an indulgent sweet treat in this roundup, and these oatmeal cookies are one of the best. They're stuffed with coarsely chopped dark chocolate chunks and then sprinkled with flaky sea salt (like Maldon) so each bite is the perfect mouthful of salty and sweet. Toasting our oats will give them an even bolder rich flavor.