Overnight oats rely on a basic premise: capturing the versatility and simplicity of oatmeal, without time at the stovetop. The “just add milk” simplicity of some recipes make for a satisfyingly instant breakfast. A historical example of the genre, modified for modern palates, loads in ingredients with crunch, protein and flavor.
Bircher muesli was invented in the early 1900s by a Swiss physician, Maximilian Bircher-Brenner. An evangelist for the wholesome power of raw fruits and vegetables, his muesli self-assembles overnight, with the key last-minute addition of chopped or coarsely grated apple in equal or greater proportion to oats. During peak apple season, fresh-pressed apple juice makes a thrilling alternative liquid to milk. Juice plumps up oats as either an exclusively vegan option or backdrop for a yogurt scoop added at the eleventh hour.
Eve Hill-Agnus, a Town Crier food columnist before becoming the lead food critic at Dallas’ D Magazine, learned about the dish from a beloved Waldorf teacher who would hand-grind oats in a German contraption. For those of us less committed to the art of muesli, the overnight steep allows for grinder-free use of steel-cut oats and other, chewier alternatives to store-bought rolled oats.
Bircher-Brenner’s original recipe called for one tablespoon of rolled oats soaked in cold water overnight, one freshly grated apple and a tablespoon each of ground hazelnuts, sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice.
For those looking to prep the dish in a to-go jar in the evening, finely chopping the apples preserves a fresher taste. The sweetened milk is a potent taste to modern palates – try substituting plain milk or yogurt, relying on the apple’s natural sweetness.
In our final moments of winter, dried fruits such as raisins or chopped apricots or prunes swell beautifully in the overnight mix, and frozen berries easily defrost.
Bircher-Brenner “apple dietary dish” (Apfeldiätspeise) was significantly less elaborate than the modern variations loaded down with toppings, which can range from cream or crème fraîche to mangoes, cinnamon and pumpkin seeds.
But the fundamental idea of packing health-supporting ingredients into a practical gruel remains alive today. I was reminded of the genre’s origins one evening when a physician friend of mine opened a pouch of “Oats Over Night” – ordered via the suggestion of a startup’s well-targeted Facebook ad – and poured it into the branded shaker bottle that comes with a first shipment.
In addition to maca powder and flax and chia seeds, this muesli iteration relies on the modern science of whey protein concentrate and a flavoring boost from strawberry powder. It crams 7 grams of fiber and 26 grams of protein into a single-serve pouch. The gray-pink glop that resulted the next morning was a huge hit with my toddler, who thought pouring breakfast into her mouth from a special cup was a sign of societal progress.
The rolled oats used by everyone from Bircher-Brenner to that Arizona-based startup consist of oat groats that have been dehusked, steamed, rolled into flat flakes and lightly toasted. They don’t, in reality, require an overnight soak, merely an hour or so to soften.
Steel-cut oats – groats that have been chopped but are less processed – require the full night and make for a less toddler-oriented, and satisfyingly chewy, mouthfeel.
My recommended beginner’s version: Combine 1 apple, chopped, with 1/2 cup steel-cut oats, a pinch of salt and 1 cup of liquid. A full cup of juice represents a serious commitment to sugar – dilute with water or use milk as desired. Mix in a lidded glass jar, and top with a tablespoon each of chopped hazelnuts and flax seeds.