Text by Kara Elder, The Washington Post
It is impossible to have too many ideas for quick and easy breakfasts, especially ones that are cheap, relatively good for you and able to be made in advance. Often vegan and thickened with chia seeds, overnight oats - a cousin of muesli, which was popularized by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner in the 1900s - are a nutritious, adaptable and nearly effortless make-ahead breakfast.
So, when did overnight oats become a thing? According to Google trends, searches for overnight oats started to rise around 2012. "We saw a huge surge in posts on Pinterest and Facebook around overnight oats in the summer of 2015," Tania Haladner, senior marketing director of Quaker Foods North America, said in an email. The company introduced dry, prepackaged cups of overnight oats in June 2017.
Amanda Claypool, co-founder and chief oat officer of Washington-based oat milk company Blue Crate, first came across overnight oat recipes on food blogs such as Oh She Glows and Minimalist Baker. Claypool has been preparing overnight oats for almost every morning of the past five years. She doesn't mash a banana into the mixture, but she does add flax and chia seeds for an extra nutritional boost and creamier texture. Her toppings typically include a nut butter, seasonal fruit and seeds, such as pepitas. "There are times when I eat them in the morning and then don't need to eat lunch until 1 or 2," she says, noting how calorie-dense and sustaining the dish can be.
First, choose your container: I like to use a two-cup glass container with a lid (such as Pyrex brand) because the larger surface area means ingredients are more evenly dispersed with each bite, and there's enough room for lots of toppings. Any container will do, but if you're sensitive to leached plastic tastes, stick to glass. I tend to make one serving at a time, but bigger batches work, too: Claypool mixes about five days' worth in flat containers, for easy stacking.
Next, consider the liquid: If you avoid dairy, use an alternative milk, such as one made from oats, nuts or coconut. In times of a depleted refrigerator, I've used water and amp up the flavor with spices, though it's not ideal, as the finished texture isn't as creamy. Apple cider and kombucha present a good way to lend a touch of sweetness. The amount of liquid will affect the finished consistency: For a silky porridge, I like 1 1/2 parts liquid to one part oats (so, 3/4 cup liquid to 1/2 cup oats). Claypool uses two parts liquid to one part oats, but adds chia and flax seeds to make it creamier. For nicely plumped oats, flip the proportions and try about one part liquid to two parts oats (1/3 cup liquid, 1/2 cup oats, for example). Once you get a feel for what you like, just eyeball the measurements - and have your breakfast mixed in even less time.
Now for the fun part - the mix-ins: Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and nutmeg are a natural fit - try 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of those, one at a time or together. Turmeric is also lovely, especially when paired with coconut milk, maple syrup, dried cherries and tart jam. Conjure an oatmeal cookie with vanilla extract. Give the oats depth with unsweetened cocoa and a pinch of espresso powder. Flax and chia seeds add both nutrients and a thicker texture. Go easy on those until you get used to how they expand and gel; start with one tablespoon of each and use at least 1 1/2 times the liquid to oats, lest you end up with sludge. If you have plainly seasoned leftover cooked grains, such as quinoa, wheat berries or buckwheat, drop a spoonful into the bowl. If adding dried fruit, you can mix it in then and there, to let it absorb some of the liquid, or wait until later, to keep it extra chewy. Finally, don't forget to add salt: Just a pinch will tie everything together and make those flavors pop.
Once you've added your liquids and flavors, stir them together, making sure the oats are moistened, then put a lid on it, put it in the refrigerator and go to sleep. (Or let it sit for at least three hours if you're making this for an afternoon snack or no-cook dinner.)
When you're ready to eat, pick out your toppings: Since whatever is in your bowl is on the softer side, now is a good time to add a little texture. Cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut flakes (all toasted, please) are my go-tos for crunch. Boost the protein with a spoonful of nut butter. Fruit is a natural choice to add sweetness and a little bite: Grab a handful of berries, tear into ripe stone fruit, slice a banana or grate an apple as a nod to the original Birchermuesli. Speaking of sweetness, try maple syrup, honey, date syrup or a few spoonfuls of jam. (Sometimes I add the sweetener to the soaking liquid.) If you're the type of person who has dried rose petals in their pantry, know they make a bright and lovely addition, too; other herbs, such as lemon verbena, mint or even a smidge of thyme would also work. For a little tang, hit that bowl with a dollop of yogurt.
I typically make one serving at a time to avoid potential waste. But if you opt to make a big batch, it'll keep for four to five days in the refrigerator - and you can add leftover soaked oats to smoothies, muffins, pancake and waffle batter.
Here's a basic recipe to get you started, with a few tried-and-true variations at the end.
Basic Overnight Oats
Consider this a template ripe for customizing. The consistency of the oats is springy without being porridge-like - closer, perhaps, to muesli than that of a typical overnight oats recipe. If you prefer a loose consistency, closer to porridge, use up to 3/4 cup of liquid, and then add more the next morning, as needed. To make it extra-hearty, use 3/4 to 1 cup of liquid and add 1 tablespoon each of chia and flax seeds.
Notes: A 2-cup, lidded glass container is ideal for this single serving.
Stir together the oats and your choice of liquid the night before; the dish will be ready after about 8 hours of soaking and can be refrigerated for a day or so.
Toast the nuts or pumpkin seeds in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, shaking the pan to avoid scorching, until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely before using.
1 3/4 ounces (1/2 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats (do not use instant or quick-cooking)
1/3 cup liquid, such as water, milk, apple cider, kombucha
1 tablespoon nut butter (your choice)
1 tablespoon fruit preserves, honey or maple syrup
A few spoonfuls plain yogurt (optional)
2 tablespoons toasted nuts or seeds, such as cashews, walnuts or pumpkin seeds
A handful of fresh berries, 1 small sliced banana or other chopped fruit OR 2 tablespoons chopped dried fruit, such as cherries, raisins, cranberries, pitted dates.
Step 1: Combine the oats and salt in the container (or use a bowl) and pour the liquid over them. Use your fingers or a fork to pat down the oats to make sure they are all moistened. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours, and up to 24 hours. The liquid should be totally absorbed.
Step 2: When ready to assemble, give the oats a stir, then top with the nut butter; the fruit preserves, honey or maple syrup; and the yogurt, if using. Finish with the toasted nuts or seeds and fresh or dried fruit.
For a turmeric rose bowl: To the soaking liquid, add ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric, 1 tablespoon maple syrup and 1 tablespoon dried cherries. When ready to eat, top with toasted pumpkin seeds, apricot or peach jam, and dried rose petals.
For a chocolate tahini bowl: To the soaking liquid, add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, ⅛ teaspoon espresso powder and 1 tablespoon honey. When ready to eat, drizzle with a little tahini, then top with toasted cashews, chopped dates and some banana slices.
Feature Image: Tom McCorkle, The Washington Post