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.
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.
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.
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!
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: oats and water, mixed at a ratio of 1/4 cup of oats to 1/2 cup of water, soaked overnight and microwaved for about a minute. This has become my new standard for a good bowl of oatmeal.
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.
You can also play around 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.
Also, 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.
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, use a clear container that holds at least twice the volume of oats you are preparing (like a pint-sized canning jar) and 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 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!
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.
How to Make Overnight Oatmeal
This recipe makes one single serving. You can 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 up to 5 days, refrigerated.
To make a big batch of overnight oats: Scale up the ingredients to the number of servings you'd like to make 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. Place over medium-low heat and simmer until creamy and cooked through.
- 1/4 cup steel-cut oats or old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant oats; use gluten-free oats if needed)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup water, non-dairy milk, or milk
- Pinch salt
To serve - choose a few!
- 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, creme fraiche, or yogurt
- 1- to 2-cup microwave-safe containers with lids (I most often use wide-mouth pint canning jars)
1 Combine the oats, water, and salt in a container. Use 1/2 cup of water for thick, spoonable oatmeal, or 3/4 cup for a softer, more porridge-like oatmeal. (You can also stir in additional liquid later on to thin it out, so no need to add too much here.) Secure the lid and swirl the contents a few times so that the oats are soaked.
2 Pack up your toppings: Combine a handful of chosen oatmeal toppings in a small container. (If you're making multiple servings for breakfasts during the week, wait to assemble the toppings until the night before you plan to eat the oatmeal.)
3 Refrigerate overnight or up to 5 days.
4 Microwave the oatmeal: Remove the lid from the container and set aside. If desired, transfer the oats and their soaking liquid to a separate microwave-safe bowl. Place the container on a microwave-safe plate (to catch any accidental spills), and place in the microwave.
Microwave on high power for 30 seconds, then remove the oatmeal and stir. Microwave for another 30 seconds, then remove and stir again. If the liquid is not quite piping hot, microwave for another 15 to 30 seconds, or as needed until the liquid is very hot. Cooking time may vary from microwave to microwave; in my microwave, 1 minute and 20 seconds total cooking time was perfect.
Be very watchful when microwaving longer than 1 minute. The liquid will start to foam up and out of the container if it starts to boil. Be especially careful with smaller containers.
At this point, the oats probably won't quite look like oatmeal yet; there will still be a thin layer of foamy liquid on top of the oats. This is ok.
5 Let the oats stand for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken. After letting them stand a few minutes, give the oats a stir. The oatmeal should become thick and creamy as you stir. If it still seems more liquidy than you'd like, microwave for another 15 to 30 seconds, but be very watchful for foaming liquid.
If the oats seem too stiff and thick, stir in splash of milk, water, or other liquid to loosen them up again.
6 Stir in toppings and serve. Enjoy!
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