Chewy and cohesive
Slice cleanly and aren't sticky
Varied textures with pops of flavor
Every adult I know goes through the same mental checklist before leaving the house in the morning: Keys? Phone? Wallet? Granola bar? Okay, maybe that last one is just me.
But granola bars should be on your must-have list because they’re tasty and easy to eat on the go. And because they contain fiber, protein, and healthy fats, they make great snacking alternatives to hastily grabbed cookies or chips. That said, buying granola bars can be disappointing. Many commercial bars are so sweet that they’re really just undercover candy, and most are pretty light on hearty additions such as nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Such stinginess is especially annoying because granola bars are pricey, even though most are largely composed of inexpensive oats.
I decided that the best way to be sure the granola bars in my bag were packed with satisfying nuts, seeds, and fruit; had just the right amount of sweetness; and kept costs in check was to make them myself. Mine would be of the chewy variety. Crunchy granola has its place (on top of Greek yogurt), but chewy bars are less likely to fall apart in my hand, and the physical act of chewing them reinforces the feeling that I’ve eaten something substantial. And I’m not alone: When I polled our readers on Facebook, 72 percent of them preferred chewy bars.
All Mixed Up
The first recipes I tried followed a similar procedure: I mixed oats, nuts, seeds, and, in some cases, chunks of dried fruit with a combination of sugar and a liquid sweetener—usually honey or maple syrup. Most recipes called for stirring in some oil or butter; many also called for peanut butter or almond butter. I spread the mixtures in pans and baked them. So far, so easy. It was only when I tried to cut the cooled slabs into individual bars that things literally fell apart.
Most bars were unacceptably sticky to the touch yet, paradoxically, they refused to stick together. These bars were tender all the way through and were too yielding to be called “chewy.” Other bars were drier and left my hands cleaner, but they were too hard and were prone to shattering into messy chunks. I wanted to make cohesive granola bars with varied textures, balanced sweetness, and plenty of chew, ideal for on-the-go snacking.
For the Birds
I started my own baseline recipe by toasting 2½ cups of oats, 1 cup of sunflower seeds, and 1½ cups of chopped walnuts in the oven to bring out their flavors. I transferred everything to a bowl and stirred in 1 cup of dried cranberries for pops of brightness. One cup of brown sugar and ½ cup each of peanut butter and honey made up my “glue.” Because it’s high in saturated fat, butter seemed antithetical to the granola bar concept, so I mixed in ½ cup of vegetable oil instead. (A bonus: Using oil instead of butter would allow the bars to keep longer at room temperature.) I pressed the mixture firmly into a foil-lined, greased baking pan and baked it for about 25 minutes. These bars tasted pretty good but, like many in my initial round of testing, were both tacky and crumbly.
Thinking that smaller particles might absorb some of the stickiness and hold together better, I coarsely ground the toasted oats and nuts in the food processor before mixing the next batch. This granola was more cohesive, which made it easier to cut into bars, but they felt grainy and pasty in my mouth and bore an unsettling resemblance to those blocks of compressed seeds you hang out for the birds when the weather turns cold. So the oats would have to stay whole. But having the food processor out reminded me of another technique I had seen: binding the bars with pureed dried fruit.
The Sticking Point
While my next batch of oats, nuts, and seeds toasted, I ground 1 cup of dried apricots with the brown sugar in the food processor. I added peanut butter, honey, and oil as the machine ran, and then I mixed the promisingly viscous mixture with the warm oat mixture and the cranberries. I also added some crisped rice cereal. I suspected that firm compression of the mixture before baking was going to be important for cohesion, so I hoped that the airy cereal would provide tiny pockets of lightness. After baking and cooling, these bars stood up to cutting better than any previous batches, but they were still rather tender and crumbly when I ate them. I was aiming for a bar so resilient that I could bend it into a shallow arc; this bar simply broke in two.
I knew that fat tenderizes baked goods. Was it possible that my formula was simply too high in fat? If so, I had two options: Nix the vegetable oil or nix the peanut butter. I decided to eliminate the latter so I could devise a nut-free variation later on.
Now I was getting somewhere: Without the peanut butter, the bars were distinctly chewy and definitely cohesive. They even passed the bend test.
How We Put the “Chew” in Our Chewy Granola Bars
“Too tender.” “Too soft.” “Too dense.” We obsessed over getting the perfect chewy texture in our granola bars, meaning each bite should meet with repeated resistance as you chew. How did we achieve it? A mix of pureed dried apricots, brown sugar, oil, and water helped the bars’ ingredients cohere. Using just the right amount of moisture was also key: We added enough to make the bars tender and to hold them together when they were bent or bitten—but not so much that they became soft and lost their chew.
Just Add Water
I knew I was getting close, but without peanut butter’s salty richness, the bars were a bit too sweet and the honey flavor was especially obtrusive. Discouragingly, a batch made without honey was too dry and crumbly. I considered using corn syrup, which has very little flavor, in place of the honey because it seemed like some form of syrup was the key to a chewy, moist, cohesive texture. But was it?
Syrups are mostly sugar and water. In some cases, they’re added to recipes, such as caramel, to inhibit crystallization, but that wasn’t important in my granola bars. So maybe it wasn’t a syrup that was the magic ingredient. Maybe it was something I had never seen in a granola bar recipe: water.
The ½ cup of honey had been contributing water, so I added a small amount to the next honey-free batch, streaming it into the food processor with the oil. Three tablespoons of water worked beautifully, producing bars that were chewy and cohesive without being sticky. The tart cranberries, nutty toasted oats, and crunchy walnuts were balanced by the sweetness of the apricots and brown sugar.
I was so happy with this recipe that I used it as a template for a hazelnut, cherry, and cacao nib bar so sophisticated that a box of them would make a luxurious gift, and a richly seeded, nut-free version.