Secret Ingredients That Can Elevate The Blandest Oatmeal

Oatmeal is often advertised as a filling meal to start your day — something to carry you through breakfast to lunch. The problem? Oatmeal tastes quite bland on its own. Even the packs of flavored instant oatmeal can fall short when it comes to creating an enjoyable breakfast experience. Fortunately, there are a variety of ingredients you can add to elevate even the blandest oatmeal.


There are three main types of oatmeal to choose from depending on how much time and energy you have available in your morning routine. Steel-cut oats take the longest amount of time to cook and result in a chewy texture. Rolled (or old-fashioned) oats are fully cooked in about 5 minutes. Quick-cook oats can be microwaved and ready in one minute for those mornings when you're running behind.

Regardless of which type you choose, oatmeal has very little flavor on its own. That makes for either a boring breakfast or the perfect canvas for painting with flavors — it just depends on how you look at it. By adding one or two ingredients, you can create your perfect sweet or savory breakfast dish.

Sprinkle in a bit of cinnamon

For a simple addition on those hectic mornings, cinnamon is an excellent choice. Because it doesn't add much sweetness on its own, cinnamon can be a sort of middle ground between sweet and savory. What it does bring is a depth of flavor that we associate with sweet treats like pastries and pies. It's also considered a warming spice, which means it can make you feel warm just by tasting it, making it perfect for those cold winter days.


If your taste buds request a bit of sweetness with your cinnamon, mix it with granulated sugar before adding it to the oatmeal. This combination has the potential benefit of creating nostalgia around the childhood days of cinnamon and sugar toast. Two pro tips to keep in mind: To save time in the morning, grab bottled cinnamon and sugar on your next trip to the grocery store. Then, add a pinch of salt just before eating to highlight the sugar's sweetness.

Stir in light or dark brown sugar

Looking for one ingredient to bring both sweetness and depth of flavor? Look no further than brown sugar. Because it's made by mixing molasses with plain sugar, brown sugar adds a nuanced sweetness to any dish — including that bland oatmeal you chose for breakfast. Just sprinkle a bit of the sugar across the top of hot oatmeal and watch it melt. Stir slowly to create a swirl of flavor throughout the dish.


Keep in mind that both light brown and dark brown sugar exist. For a richer, more caramel flavor in your oatmeal, go for the dark brown version. You can also deepen the flavor with a final sprinkle of cinnamon before you start eating. In fact, most of the ingredients in this list can be combined until you, much like Goldilocks, find the oatmeal version that is just right.

Add your favorite nuts or nut butter

Elevate your oatmeal with crunch and flavor by chopping up your favorite nut and sprinkling it on top. Pecans, almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts are all great options for adding a lovely nutty flavor to the dish. And the contrast of the crunch with the texture of the oatmeal makes the eating experience less boring. Make sure to toast the nuts to help bring out their flavor. You can even toast them the night before to save time in the morning.


If you want the nut flavor without the crunch, just stir in your favorite nut butter or spread instead. This option will lend some creaminess in addition to flavoring the oatmeal, which can help if the dish is on the watery side. For maximum nut flavor, use both the nut butter and the toasted nuts. And for a borderline dessert oatmeal, stir in a chocolate hazelnut spread!

Top your oatmeal with fresh fruit

Fresh fruit is a great option for brightening up your oatmeal breakfast. With the whole world of fruit to choose from, a variety of flavor profiles are available, from sweet to tart. Pick something to match your mood: Bananas can be subtly sweet when they're still green and more in the caramel zone when they're ripe or slightly overripe. Strawberries and blueberries bring a mix of sweet and tart. Raspberries, Granny Smith apples, and pomegranates are sure to wake up your taste buds with their tart flavors.


You can also macerate the fruit to elevate the sweetness or mellow the tartness. Just toss freshly-cut fruit with a little bit of granulated sugar and let it sit for at least 20 minutes. If you're using steel-cut oats, the fruit can macerate while the oatmeal cooks and all the elements of your meal will be ready at the same time.

And remember: You aren't limited to one fruit per day. Mix fruits together to get the flavor profile you're looking for. Plus, you can create textural differences by adding some of the nuts from the previous suggestion.

Drop in a handful of dried fruit

Many fruits are also available in a dried form — which can be easier for those rushed mornings when there's no time for stemming, peeling, and slicing. Just open the package and pour out your desired amount. And as with the fresh fruit suggestion, the spectrum of sweet to tart — from raisins to dried cranberries — is available to you here. Stick to one, or choose a dried fruit medley for a few different flavors.


In addition to the flavor, dried fruit provides a textural element to break up the mush of the oatmeal. Most of the dried fruit options will be chewy, giving your jaw something to do as you eat your first meal of the day. But you could also venture into crunchy textures with dried apple or banana slices.

If you want the flavor without the full chewiness, you could stir the fruit in with the cooking oatmeal to let it rehydrate a little bit. This would work best with the steel-cut or rolled oats versus the one-minute cooking time of quick-cooked oats.

Go savory with a bit of chopped up bacon

Who says oatmeal has to be sweet? While the suggestions so far have been more in that zone, bacon is one simple way to tip the scales toward savory. By bringing salt and umami to the party, bacon adds a depth of flavor that takes the dish in a new direction.


Cook your bacon so it's nice and crispy to add that textural difference, too. Once it's cooked and cooled slightly, you can crumble it over the top of the oatmeal. You can also drizzle some of the bacon fat to deliver a different kind of creaminess and level up the mouth feel.

If you're in the mood for sweet and savory, you could combine bacon with the previously mentioned brown sugar or maple syrup (coming up later in this list). You could even make candied bacon to use as your oatmeal topper.

Place a perfectly-poached egg on top of your oatmeal

Staying in the savory zone, why not poach an egg as you wait for your oatmeal to cook? If you time it correctly, you can take the perfectly poached egg directly from the water to set it atop your bowl of just-finished oatmeal. Sprinkle a little salt and grind a little pepper over the egg. At first, things might seem a bit one-note when it comes to the color of this dish. But now it's time for the magic.


The still-liquid yolk spills out as you cut into the egg, spreading its shiny yellow-orange goodness across the oatmeal landscape. That yolk brings a creamy richness to the oatmeal that just can't be duplicated. The silky egg white adds a slight textural difference as well, but you can combine this suggestion with the bacon suggestion for a variety of textures all in one bowl.

Add semi-sweet or dark chocolate

Zoom back to the sweet end of the spectrum for a minute and elevate that bland oatmeal with some chocolate. This could be as subtle as shaving a bit of chocolate over the top or as bold as letting a whole handful of chocolate chips melt into the oatmeal. To keep things from getting overly sweet, opt for semi-sweet or dark chocolate.


One bite of chocolate can play host to a large variety of flavors, which means it can activate multiple human taste profiles all at once. Dark chocolate typically covers sweet, sour, and bitter, making it a perfect option for getting depth of flavor into that oatmeal. The mellow flavor of the oatmeal itself can be an excellent backdrop for the chocolate.

If you're a fan of fruit in chocolate or chocolate-covered fruit, experiment with leveling up the sweet or sour levels (or both) by adding in fresh or dried fruit along with the chocolate chips. If you lean more toward chocolate and nuts, combine those two suggestions. You might just be able to get your oatmeal to taste like a peanut butter cup.


Create fall vibes with pumpkin pie spice

Like cinnamon, this spice combination won't bring sweetness, but it will add warmth and depth of flavor that will have your taste buds thinking of pumpkin pie. You can either buy a bottle at the grocery store or make your own with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Those last two are also on the list of warming spices that can help you feel warm even on a cold day.


If you're feeling particularly in the mood for pumpkin pie for breakfast, you can stir a spoonful or two of pumpkin or sweet potato purée into the oatmeal as it cooks. This way, you get more than just the spice flavor into the dish. Top the oatmeal-pumpkin mixture with a sprinkle of sugar and a dash of vanilla, along with the spice mixture.

In fact, you can use other combinations of spices and ingredients to recreate the taste of any of your favorite baked goods. Raisins, brown sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla would result in oatmeal cookie oatmeal. Swap bananas for the raisins, and you'll have banana bread and oatmeal. The possibilities are almost endless!

Sweeten things up with a drizzle of maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar

Instead of sugar, you can use liquid sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar. Along with the sweetness, these have their own flavors to bring to the table, so you aren't stuck with that bland and boring oatmeal. You can experiment with different varieties of sweeteners to see what flavors you prefer.


When it comes to maple syrup and agave nectar, the flavor shifts with the color. A darker color means a richer flavor — much like dark brown sugar. Honey flavors depend on the plant pollen used to create it. You're most likely to find clover honey in your grocery store, but you can try alfalfa honey for an earthy flavor or orange blossom honey for a citrus flavor.

As with other suggestions in this list, you can combine these sweeteners with other ingredients to build layers of flavor and texture. For example, the deep caramel flavors of a dark agave might balance the tartness of fresh raspberries or highlight the nuttiness of toasted cashews.

Get cheesy with your oatmeal

Cheese is often used to add saltiness and flavor to grits, so why not try it in oatmeal? You can stir in cheeses that melt easily for a consistent flavor throughout the dish. Fontina brings a nutty, buttery flavor. Provolone is more sharp and tangy, especially if you go for one that's been aged longer. For a milder, grassy, and floral flavor, choose mozzarella. Add the cheese in for the last few minutes of cooking time so it can melt and fully incorporate into the oatmeal.


Do you prefer the adventure of each spoonful of oatmeal being slightly different? Instead of stirring the cheese while cooking, sprinkle a crumbly cheese over the top once the oatmeal is in your bowl. Those crumbles will create little pockets of flavor when you get one on your spoon. If you're looking for something salty, reach for feta. For tang, grab goat cheese. For a bit of both, gorgonzola is the cheese for you.

Spoon sautéed mushrooms and garlic over the top

For a vegetarian or vegan savory version of oatmeal, try sautéeing mushrooms with a little bit of garlic. This combination creates umami, which can help your bland oatmeal taste much more satisfying than it does on its own. And mushrooms are another ingredient where you can experiment with different varieties to find the flavor or flavors that you prefer.


While all mushrooms have umami and meaty quality, the levels of each vary depending on the type. Button and cremini mushrooms are milder in flavor than portobellos. Oyster and lion's mane mushrooms can lean toward seafood in flavor. And chanterelle mushrooms have a peppery facet to their flavor.

Much like the bacon these mushrooms are stepping in for, you can use them to provide a textural difference for your oatmeal in addition to the flavor. It's always important to cook mushrooms well so they don't become rubbery, but you may especially want to make them crispy for this dish.

Use milk instead of water for the cooking liquid

This might be the simplest way to bring subtle flavor to your bowl of oatmeal. Just like using broth or stock instead of water elevates the flavor of the soup, using milk instead of water brings oatmeal up a notch from boring. But the flavor won't be overpowering, so your bowl of oatmeal can still be the backdrop for showcasing other ingredients.


Here again, you have a variety of milks and flavor profiles to play around with. Cow's milk adds a subtle sweetness. The unsweetened version of various nut milks brings the nutty flavor, which can boost the toasted nuts you're adding or complement the savory aspects of your dish. You can even go all in on the oat flavor and use oat milk! Whichever milk you choose, it will lend some welcome creaminess to the oatmeal as well. Using milk instead of water is fairly uncomplicated. Simply replace the amount of water with the same amount of milk. Just make sure to heat it slowly, stir it often, and keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.

Get creative with melted butter

Just like milk, its liquid form, butter will make your oatmeal smooth and creamy. Additionally, salted butter infuses the dish with a bit of salt to combat the bland flavor of oatmeal. But you aren't limited to plain butter. Once again it's time to channel your inner Goldilocks and test various options to find the one that's just right for you.


Because of its fat content, mixing melted butter with any of the spices mentioned in this list — cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, or even brown sugar — will help carry those flavors through the oatmeal and enhance them. Adding extra nuttiness (with or without those toasted nuts) is easy with browned butter. For savory oatmeals, you can buy or create compound butter with herb combinations to complement the other elements of the dish. Imagine stirring thyme butter into your oatmeal before topping it with those sautéed mushrooms! Goodbye, bland. Hello, flavor.