Fast-Food Oatmeal: The Good, the Bland, and the Goopy
It’s warm, healthy, filling, and pairs well with anything—in so many ways, oatmeal is an ideal breakfast food. But portable, it is not. While instant oatmeal packets can be a fair substitute, those on-the-go (or without a microwave in the office) might need a fast-food fix.
Luckily, many chains have heard the cries of oatmeal lovers, and added it to their menus over the past few months. Methods vary widely, from slow-cooked Irish oats to packet-style instant, and toppings vary more widely still. (Papaya? Whipped cream? Blackberry compote? Choose your poison.) Which are worth your breakfast attention? Read on to find out. We tried: Au Bon Pain, Cosi, Pret a Manger, Maoz, Jamba Juice and Starbucks.
Au Bon Pain
Mode of attack: Self-serve oatmeal and toppings, which the control freak in me appreciated.
Toppings: Add your own, as many as you like: brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, dried cranberries, slivered almonds, and sadly, tasteless granola.
Taste: While Au Bon Pain’s oatmeal had the earthy, nutty flavor of good Irish oats, it was unusually bland (yes, even for oatmeal)—a touch of sweetness or even salt would have made a huge difference. With a few spoonfuls of brown sugar, however, it brightens right up.
Texture: This is where Au Bon Pain’s oatmeal excels. The slow-cooked oats soften into a smooth, elastic porridge with perfectly chewy oats. After a few minutes, however, it starts to grow gummy.
Price: $3 for a medium serving and unlimited toppings.
Overall Score: B+, for its long, slow cook, softened (not pulverized) oats, DIY toppings, and good value.
Mode of attack:Order your oatmeal with choice of two toppings, and out it comes, scooped from a vat in the kitchen.
Toppings: Your choice of two: brown sugar, pistachios, fresh strawberries, granola, raisins, whipped cream, and bits of the nutty Cosi Break Bar. Toppings are added in the back, but can be ordered on the side if requested.
Taste: Mild and sweetened with just a touch of brown sugar. I preferred it to Au Bon Pain’s for eating unadorned, but it lacked oaty or nutty flavor—funny, for self-described “steel-cut Irish oatmeal.”
Texture: Thin and almost slurry-like, with oats that could hardly be seen, let alone tasted, Cosi’s oatmeal had zero texture to speak of. Come on, Cosi—even Quaker Instant has a little bite. And steel-cut oats have a lot.
Price: $2.99, served with two toppings.
Overall Score: B. While I liked the hint of sweetness in the plain oatmeal, and that it was served steaming hot, I missed the texture of good steel-cut oats. Or even well-cooked rolled oats.
Mode of attack: Look behind the counter and you’ll see the barista tear open a little oat packet, add hot water, and stir. (Also known as the dorm room method.)
Toppings: Your choice of three little packets—dried fruit, mixed nuts, or brown sugar.
Taste: I was expecting a lot from “Perfect Oatmeal.” But this was instant oatmeal, with the slight powdery taste that comes from the packet. Fine once sweetened, but unappealing when plain.
Texture: I have no inherent problem with instant oatmeal—I’ve had many a tasty bowl from my kitchen. But without the added kick of a microwave or stovetop, oatmeal never really cooks or integrates, and it cools almost instantly (that word seems to be the theme). Oatmeal should be a consistent entity—not just soggy oats in hot water. No thanks.
Price: $2.45 with one topping.
Overall Score: C. Erin had already warned us, but four months later, Starbucks hasn’t stepped up its game.
Pret a Manger
Mode of attack: Instant oatmeal, with trail-mix toppings already stirred in, cooked with hot water or steamed milk and topped with maple syrup upon request.
Toppings: No choices here. Pret’s hot cereal contains oats, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, coconut, currants, and a more-than-adequate dose of cinnamon.
Taste: My first thought was, This tastes healthy. With no inherent sweetness, the predominant flavors are cinnamon and almond, for a dry, very earthy experience. Like a Kashi cereal. Unfortunately, the oatmeal has only a powdery flavor of its own, which unsweetened cinnamon can only do so much to mask.
Texture: In a word: goopy. After two minutes of steeping and two more of vigorous stirring, the instant oatmeal was still thin and watery. Given fifteen more minutes, it thickened up but became mushy and heavy. And by then, it had cooled completely.
Overall Score: B-. Only Starbucks and Pret go the instant oatmeal route, and without a microwave, it just doesn’t work—no matter how hot the water, it can’t instantly cook oats or create a cohesive hot cereal. And while the nuts, currants and cinnamon worked well together, those who don’t like the nutty flavor are out of luck at Pret.
Only available at the Union Square location in Manhattan
Mode of attack: Precooked oatmeal is dished out, topped with milk if you like, and sprinkled with up to three of the toppings glittering before you. Cinnamon, honey, and brown sugar wait on the side.
Toppings: The sign lists all manner of goodies, but while Maoz’s salad-bar-style toppings (for the falafel sandwiches after 11 a.m.) are impressive, the selection doesn’t live up to its advertising. Mango, banana, and strawberry constituted the available fresh fruit; next to them were dried pineapple, raisins, and papaya, granola and almonds and pumpkin seeds, and four different (but virtually identical) fruit and nut concoctions.
Taste: Straightforward rolled-oat fans will like Maoz’s unsweetened, unadorned oatmeal.
Texture: Made from rolled oats rather than the steel-cut variety, Maoz’s oatmeal resembles something you’d make in your office microwave. Well-cooked, well-integrated and steaming hot, it’s several steps above Starbucks or Pret. But after a few bites, it becomes sticky and slightly gummy.
Price: $3.95 for a small, $4.95 for a large.
Overall Score: B. Those who pile their oatmeal with trail mix will be very happy at Maoz, as will those looking for garden-variety Quaker oatmeal. Then again, $3.95 for a small garden-variety Quaker oatmeal seems a bit steep.
And the winner is...
Mode of attack: Like Au Bon Pain, Jamba serves the real deal. Steel-cut oats are slow-cooked (in soymilk), dished up hot, and come with your choice of topping.
Toppings: Three topping sets—Apple cinnamon compote, Blueberry-blackberry compote, or fresh banana—all with a brown sugar crumble.
Taste: While soy milk may sound unorthodox, this is the oatmeal that will please steel-cut purists. It’s creamy and just a hint sweet, with the slightly nutty flavor that comes only from long-cooked Irish oats. Toppings lean towards the sweet side: apple-cinnamon and blueberry-blackberry compotes tasted like warm pie filling; the crispy brown sugar bits, like the topping of a good berry crumble. But doled out sparingly, they add fun and flavor without overwhelming the oatmeal.
Texture: When steel-cut oats are cooked long enough, they soften into a creamy, smooth cereal but retain an independent bite—each oat pops in your mouth. And this is just what Jamba’s oats do. Another testament to the powers of pre-cooking.
Overall Score: A. Slow-cooked oats, good enough to eat alone, with tasty toppings to make them still better, and a hearty, fairly-priced serving. Jamba’s oatmeal was the only one that couldn’t be replicated in the office microwave. It’s the kind of breakfast that makes you excited for tomorrow morning.