The Best Best-Ever Granola Recipe (Part 1: Technique)
For years I’ve wanted to post a granola recipe for fans who appreciate our style of granola but need to accommodate dietary restrictions (or aversions), or feel compelled to experiment with variations, or want the great pleasure of making granola themselves. Or perhaps you just enjoy reading recipes.
The title--okay, it's a bit facetious, but everybody and their brother and sister and seems to have a "best ever" granola recipe on the internet--for search engine reasons, I assume. But after reading 4 screens worth that don't follow these principles, I figure this must be the best of the best-evers. I guess we'll see if search engine's can figure that out.
I’ll divide this in two parts: First a set of 7 principles—some crucial, some less-so—that could improve your granola-making technique or help you adapt your favorite recipe or evaluate a new one. Second, a basic template recipe. You can fill in the blanks and make it your own.
Seven principles of granola-making:
Number 1: Pre-toast your ingredients. The “pre” here is to emphasize we’re not talking about baking. You’ll bake afterwards. First toast your ingredients. Toasting doesn’t take a lot of time and doesn't need to be done precisely. The goal is to improve and concentrate flavors and remove excess moisture. Oats, in particular, have a musty barnyard essence once they’ve sat around in a canister or bin. (Or maybe that flavor originates in a barnyard—I don’t know.) When toasted, oats turn bright, clean, and nutty. Their texture becomes pleasantly flakey. Not a single internet recipe I’ve read includes this step but it’s the single most important thing you can do if you want great granola. You heard it here first. (The same idea holds for things like apple crisps and oatmeal cookies.) I can usually tell at the first bite whether someone has pre-toasted their oats and nuts.
One goal we have for our granola is that someone could close their eyes, eat a chunk, and actually taste each ingredient. Each ingredient should be visually and gastronomically identifiable and important. We buy ingredients raw and dry-toast each separately to control the flavor. The wheat germ (with its slightly sour barnyard essence) turns sweet. Sesame seeds start to shine and get a bit sticky. Nuts become fragrant. At home there’s no need to do this separately. Just measure your ingredients into a pan (to save time, I use the big stainless steel bowl that I will mix the granola in) and give them 20-30 minutes in the oven at about 300 or 350. Stir occasionally. I prefer longer times at lower temperatures. Remove it (don’t forget a hot pad—it’s easy to forget with a bowl) when the oats have turned slightly gold, smell great, and crumble slightly in your mouth. Almonds and sunflower seeds should be heated through and too hot to pinch hard between your fingers.
Some ingredients, like flax, we don’t toast. Heat degrades their oil and shortens the shelf life. We leave fresh beautiful walnuts alone but toast all other whole nuts. We don’t usually toast ground-up nuts (meaning nut meals or flours, not peanuts). We only toast coconut flakes if we plan to add them separately at the end once the rest of the granola has baked.
Number 2: Respect the ratios. Most granola calls for a mixture of sugar, honey, and oil. We generally follow a 1:1:1 ratio. I still don’t understand the science of it, but I’ve tried a thousand variations on this ratio and always return close to it. It is as much about texture as taste. The oats absorb the stickiness of the sugar. Honey provides the strength and the shine. Oil provides body and balance (and ensures a sense of fullness so you don’t pig-out on carbs a couple hours later.) Too much honey in the ratio overwhelms the flavor and makes the oats hard to chew. Too much sugar and the coating gets grainy and your clumps may, over time, fall apart.
We always use an unrefined dehydrated cane juice for sugar. It handles well and creates a complex flavor. I like the texture of Sucanat over Rapadura. There are plenty of other syrup sweeteners you can sub in like agave, or brown rice, but, for the purposes of the ratio think of them as sugar rather than honey. Maple syrup lacks strength so subbing in maple syrup for honey can alter the texture dramatically. Better to remove some sugar and increase the baking time (or boil the syrup) to evaporate the extra moisture.
Some recipes call for flour and water to create clumps. To me that sounds silly—like someone had a lousy experience making turkey gravy and now associates flour with clumps. I’ve seen recipes call for egg whites as a binder. We’ve always avoided eggs and dairy (with the exception of chocolate). No doubt, butter would taste really nice.
Number 3: Bring it to a boil. Like most granola recipes, ours gathers the dry grains, nuts, and seeds, then mixes in a syrup of sugar, oil, honey, spices, and salt, then bakes. We bring the syrup to a boil. Doing this incorporates the oil and decreases the baking time. Boiling may not be technically necessary, but if every great recipe needs a beautiful moment, this is ours. Just as the syrup starts to boil it transforms into a rich, velvety, fragrant, lava-like liquid. It’s gorgeous. It releases wisps of steam and the color is as extraordinary as the smell. When we’re doing this in a large pot and turn on the exhaust fan, the whole neighborhood breathes deeply. Flip off the burner off and savor the moment. It’s okay to add extracts to the liquid before boiling, but adding them at the end will result in a roiling surface and a grand exhalation of aroma.
Number 4: Bake low. This too might be a matter of taste—but why risk burning it? In my home convection oven, I use the lowest setting (250). My oven is susceptible to temperature creep, so I keep an extra thermometer inside and just turn the heat off (for a few minutes at a time) once it passes 300. In our kitchen we bake our granola for nearly an hour. At home, I usually have to stop at 45 minutes. It should turn golden. If you like a caramel flavor, it’s okay to let the very top of the granola darken before stirring, but please don’t burn it. If you prefer a softer granola decrease the baking time. I test for doneness by removing a bit, pinching it together and letting it harden on a cool surface.
Number 5: Add fruit near the end. Most granola recipes tell you to add fruit after the granola cools. I think this too is a mistake. One challenge of granola is balancing the moisture with your desire for crunch. Sugars will absorb moisture from the fruit and eventually soften the granola—so we add in most types of fruit (like raisins, cranberries, mangoes, pineapple, or dates) about 10 or 15 minutes before we’re done baking. Prunes with sorbate in them need even more time. This technique can also bind some of the fruit to clusters, and protect it with a thin coat of honey. Your grain to fruit ratio will have an effect on texture. We usually aim for about 1 and ½ cups of fruit to 8 cups of grains and nuts.
Number 6: Don't stir (or do) while it cools. If you want your granola to cluster in chunks, then let it cool without stirring. Afterwards, you can break up the pieces with your hands. If you don’t want chunks, then stir it after it comes out of the oven. We’ve developed some additional techniques for creating the boulder-size chunks we’re famous for, but this is a closely guarded trade secret.
Number 7: Keep it cool. While granola tastes fine enough at room temperature for months, the healthy oils in seeds and nuts can be sensitive to temperature, so we encourage people to store it in the fridge. Some of our granola goes from oven to freezer on the day it was made. We allow ours an expiration date of no more than months even when it’s heat-sealed in a high-barrier bag. Definitely refrigerate the home-made stuff if you’re keeping it that long—but this is probably a moot point since what you make at home might be gone in a few hours.
Click here for the actual Best Best Ever recipe.