Redemptive Granola Bars

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when granola was healthy.  It was just a few years ago that granola was regarded as a “weird” food, one that was shunned by the mainstream masses.  If you wanted to buy some, you’d have to go into a natural foods store to find it – one of those places that also sells healing crystals, vegetarian dog food, and bread products with as much umami as styrofoam.  Granola was seen as “just” health food, or at the very least something that only people from California would eat.

At some point, the Powers That Be seized upon the realization that they could sell granola bars at the supermarket if they made a few special additions here and there – you know, to make granola more compatible with the average customer’s palate.  Shoppers would perceive that they were engaged in a healthy diet choice (it is granola, after all) but in order to get them truly on board with the concept, the brands started adding chocolate, and additional sugar, and all manner of preservatives.  Some preservatives were added to keep chewy granola soft, others to keep crunchy granola from going stale.  The end result?  You can’t find a mass-marketed granola bar that’s truly healthy.  In fact, if you check the nutritional panel on a typical box of granola bars, you’ll find that some brands are really no better for you than most candy bars.  If truly healthy granola is Anakin, then the bars that contain chocolate chips, added sugar, and overly-sweetened yogurt fillings are Darth Vader – twisted, evil, and full of empty calories.

Instead of feeling down about this whole corrupted granola scenario, I decided to make my own.  It is incredibly easy, and the best part about making your own granola is the fact that you know everything that goes into them.  The base ingredients are cheap, widely available, and good for you.  If you want to tart them up with less-than-healthy components, or go completely overboard with additional healthy ingredients, it’s completely up to you.  The important thing is this – you have full control over what you’re eating.

The basic concept of any granola bar recipe involves mixing a combination of dry ingredients (primarily oats) with some form of gooey liquid sweetener to bind it all together (without the binding, you just have granola, no bar).  Press the mess into a dish, bake until set, then store in an airtight container.  I am presenting the master recipe here, but I hope to experiment a little more and come up with some truly unique combinations later.  I’m still tinkering – the bars are not as soft as I would like, and maybe this can be resolved just by dialing back how much time they spend in the oven.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe uses a combination of oats, nuts, and dried coconut for the dry ingredients, and honey, peanut butter, and brown rice syrup for the wet.  One of the things that you’ll notice about this recipe is that there is no white sugar – by using honey and brown rice syrup, you still achieve the desired sweetness but in a way that is slowly digested and avoids sugar crash.  Also, the ingredients are very forgiving, so long as you maintain approximately the same volumes – if all that you have on hand are raisins, you can use all raisins.

The Best Food Blog Ever Master Granola Bar Recipe

2 cups oats
1 cup mixed nuts, chopped (see note about salt, below)
1 1/2 cup raisins, dried cranberries, and dried cherries
1 cup shredded coconut (low fat version, if available)
1/2 cup wheat germ or flax seeds

1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup peanut butter (natural, if available)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted nuts)

Set your oven to 350°F. Line a baking dish (a square one for thicker bars, or a rectangle for thinner ones) with foil or parchment paper.  Get a rubber spatula ready.

Bake the oatmeal, coconut, and nuts together on a sheet pan for 15 minutes, until visibly browned.  You’ll know by the toasty smell that’s coming from your oven.

While the dry ingredients are toasting, mix the wet ingredients in a measuring cup, making sure to stir thoroughly to incorporate the vanilla and salt throughout.  Set aside.

This next step is best done in a stand mixer, but if you don’t have one you can also use a handheld mixer or a quick stirring arm.

Transfer the hot mixture to a bowl and stir in the wheat germ or flax seeds.  Pour the wet ingredients over the warm dry ingredients and mix together, then add the dried fruit and mix for a few seconds more.  Using the rubber spatula, press the mixture into the pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for 20 minutes.  I am still tinkering with the baking time – I have been baking the bars for 30 minutes, which yields a harder texture than what I would like.

Lift the granola slab out of the pan and let cool completely, then cut into bars and store in an airtight container.