Recipe: Free-for-all granola

There is no reason to buy granola.

Ok, maybe if it comes with a yogurt cup and you’re in a real hurry. But big bags of granola? Don’t do it. Store-bought granola generally has a lot of fat and, apart from the fiber from the oats, not that much in the way of nutritional value. Besides, it’s soooo much less interesting than it could be. Usually all you get in a cheap bag of granola is oats, raisins, maybe some almonds, and all the canola oil they add to keep it sticking together and tasting good (because fat is delicious).

With about an hour of time (a lot of which is hands-off), ingredients that can mostly be purchased in bulk for cheap(ish), an oven, a big bowl, a littler bowl, two baking sheets, and a spatula, delicious and healthier granola can be yours.

Some of the ingredients I used for the latest batch: cinnamon, almonds, dried cherries, oats, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and vanilla.
Some of the ingredients I used for the latest batch: cinnamon, almonds, dried cherries, oats, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and vanilla.

This recipe epitomizes my cooking methodology for simple foods in that it’s less of a recipe and more of a set of guidelines. I’ll write down what I used for the batch that’s in the oven right now, but you should substitute in/out whatever you like. Many suggestions below.

Guidelines for Good Granola

The three basic ingredients of granola are oats, liquid, and heat. The oats are the base of the granola, becoming crunchy and yummy when dried. The liquid softens the oats, allowing them to form clusters that include optional ingredients like dried fruit, spices, and nuts. The heat helps the softening/clustering process initially (think cooking oatmeal) and then dries out the clusters, resulting in the aforementioned crunch.

Beyond this base, the flavors are all up to you. I recommend trying to figure out some kind of theme rather than just throwing in all the ingredients in your pantry. Here are some flavor combinations I like:

  • Dried cherries, almonds, pistachios, cinnamon, black pepper, vanilla, maple syrup (cherries + almonds = win)
  • Dried apricots, walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon, ginger, honey (baklava granola)
  • Raisins, almonds, cinnamon, vanilla, maple syrup (“classic” granola)
  • Dried apricots, dates, macadamia nuts, dried coconut, pistachios, ginger, coconut milk (tropical granola!)
  • Craisins, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, pumpkin puree, maple syrup, vanilla (pumpkin pie granola!)*

*I haven’t actually tried this. But I can pretty much guarantee it would be delicious, and I’m sure there’s a recipe out there somewhere.

Ingredients

  • Oats
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, macadamia nuts, etc.)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame)
  • Dried fruit (raisins, craisins, cherries, apricots)
  • Liquid (mix and match: olive/canola oil, unsweetened applesauce, water, maple syrup, honey)
  • Spices/flavorings (cinnamon, ginger, mace, allspice, black pepper, vanilla)
  • Other optional ingredients: dried coconut, flaxseed meal, millet or rinsed quinoa for extra crunch

Process

This granola recipe is all about intuition. At each step, ask yourself if it looks right. If yes, proceed. If no, add more of whatever you think is lacking. It will take a few tries to get your perfect batch of granola, but even the less-awesome batches will be pretty darn good.

While dates and dried apricots are generally quite moist and can just be chopped, then added to the dry ingredients, raisins, craisins, dried cherries and similar fruits tend to bake into hard little balls that are quite unappetizing. I recommend putting these fruits into bowls (together if you don’t mind the flavors blending together a bit, otherwise separate bowls), pouring boiling water over them, covering with a plate, and letting them sit as you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Pour about 6-8 cups of oats into your big bowl (we’re aiming for enough final granola to fill two baking sheets, so it kind of depends on how big yours are). Add in your seeds (I used sunflower and pumpkin, but have also added flaxseed meal in the past). Chop or crumble nuts (I used walnuts and almonds this time) and add to the oats and seeds. Add in prepared fruit and any other dry ingredients. I generally add spices at this point: for this batch, a generous amount of cinnamon (~2 tsp), some dried ginger (~1 tsp), several twists on the pepper grinder’s worth of black pepper (~1/2 tsp), and a sprinkle each of allspice and cardamom. Use your hands to mix the dry ingredients: scoop both hands in a pincer motion to the bottom of the bowl and bring them up to stir top-to-bottom.

Liquids poured on top of the solids.
Liquids poured on top of the solids.

Now, make the liquid mixture. You’ll need about 1 cup of liquid per 3 cups of oats. I use unsweetened applesauce as a base, then add some maple syrup, a little bit of olive oil, a dash of vanilla, and some water if I think it needs more volume. Mix the liquids, then add to the dry ingredients and mix as before.

This is what my latest batch looked like after mixing. I ran out of applesauce, so there isn't as much liquid as I would have liked.
This is what my latest batch looked like after mixing. I ran out of applesauce, so there isn’t as much liquid as I would have liked.

You want the final mixture to be very moist and sticking together well, but without any spare liquid at the bottom. If it’s too wet, add more oats. If too dry, add more liquid. Moister granola at this stage = larger clumps later on.

Spread the granola evenly between 2 baking sheets and put them in the oven with plenty of space in between the two racks so that air can circulate. The temperature should be about 300 degrees. Don’t bother preheating, just set the temperature when you put the sheets in the oven.

Cooling in the oven. Not as clustery as I would have liked, but still delicious!
Cooling in the oven. Not as clustery as I would have liked, but still delicious!

Every 15-20 minutes, take both sheets out of the oven, flip/stir thoroughly with a spatula, and put them back in the oven with the pan that was on the lower rack on the upper rack and vice versa.  Continue until granola is slightly hard/crispy but not very browned or burnt; it will continue cooking  and drying as it cools. Let cool in oven (if it isn’t close to browned when you turn the oven off) or on baking sheets in open air. When completely cool, store in airtight container.

Serving suggestion: with yogurt or milk and fruit, or by the handful as desired.

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