Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Granola: How to not follow a recipe

After Monday's post on granola vs. potato chips, I got a request for my granola recipe.  I told my daughters about this, and both of them immediately got the giggles, because it's sort of a family joke that I'm the least recipe-following person they know.  I tend to just toss things together in a pot, mix it together, and then pronounce a name.   Some of our recent meals have included "Pittsburgh Pasta!" Or, "Carolina cauliflower soup".  Or "Oregon Oatmeal Rye Bread".  And usually, if you ask me a day later what went into that concoction, I'll just say, "There was . . . um . . . pasta, and . . . um . . . leftover artichoke hearts . . . and . . . um . . . STUFF."   'Stuff' is my favorite ingredient.

But there is a method in my mixing madness, and I think I can explain a bit of this with granola as an example.

The first time I try a dish, I follow an actual recipe fairly closely (well, closely for me).  If you don't want to muddle through my own granola meanderings, you can skip right to this recipe for granola, which I got long ago from the Tightwad Gazette.  But if you do a quick web search for "granola recipe," you'll see there are a gazillion of these around, all different from each other.  And the sheer variety of granola recipes is a sure-fire sign of this:  YOU'RE NOT GOING TO MESS IT UP IF YOU CHANGE THE RECIPE.  Tweak, tinker, or experiment boldly -- granola is a hearty concoction that's not going to let you down.

Part I:  What goes into granola?
  • A bunch of grain.  It's "grain-ola", after all.  The usual base is oats (regular oats, not quick oats).  Oats have a good fat body, and they're cheap.  But some recipes also add flax, rye seed, etc.   When I make up a (large) batch of granola, I tend to use a whole cardboard container of oats -- that's about 10 cups worth.
  • Oil.  This helps to keep the granola from sticking to the pan (although it doesn't work completely), and it also helps the oats to bake up a little crispier.  I use vegetable oil, because it's cheap and I have it in my baking center already; I tend to use a bit less than a cup, or thereabouts.
  • Sweet stuff.  Many recipes I've seen call for a mixture of honey and brown sugar.  Honey is so pricey that I've experimented with using only brown sugar, and also with using plain white sugar.  Both variations seem to work fine; the flavor varies a bit, but it all tastes good enough that kids (and their teachers) love it and want more.  For 10 cups of oats, I use about one-and-a-bit cups of sweet stuff, although many recipes call for about twice as much* as that.  
*Yes, that much sugar sounds disgusting.  But that's because we don't realize how much sugar goes into our store-bought cereals, or into jams or syrups.   This recipe makes a LOT of granola (about thirty servings), so the amount sugar per bowl of granola is fairly modest.
  • Nutritious/Vitamin-y stuff.  Some recipes add wheat germ or flax seed.  I add powdered milk (about one cup), partly because that's what my Tightwad Gazette recipe called for, and partly because I already have that in my baking center.  
  • Flavor/Decoration stuff.  This includes spices (cinnamon is a winner), or coconut, dried fruit, and/or nuts.  This is definitely an area where I play around depending on what I have at hand.  If you purchase dried fruit (other than raisins), you're likely to pay a bundle for it, which will drive up the cost of the granola.  I'll sometimes add raisins; I've also started drying strawberries, peaches, and apples that we get for cheap during the summer and saving these just for winter granola.  But most of this stuff is optional; don't feel compelled to get fancy.
Part II: The mechanics.
  • Save most of the flavor/decoration stuff for the end, after everything is done baking. The exception is the spices (cinnamon!), which goes in the oven with the rest of the party.
  • Begin with a large bowl or even a large baking pan, in which you mix together all the dry ingredients (for example, oats, dry milk, sugar, spices).
  • Then add the oil, stir it all around.  Make sure the pan that's going into the oven is oiled.
  • Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about a half hour, stirring occasionally to make sure the mixture doesn't stick, and also to make sure it browns evenly.  
The granola should turn a nice golden brown.  If it starts turning black, it's overdone -- whoops!
  • When the granola comes out of the oven, you have a short grace period when it's not yet going to stick to the pan.  Once it starts cooling too much, the sugar will start to crystalize.  This will make clean-up tricky, but even worse, it means that you'll lose some precious granola because it will cling like steel-reinforced-concrete to the pan.  So transfer the mixture to another container while it's still warm.  (For reasons I don't understand, my granola sticks to the hot pan, but not to a cool cardboard or glass container).
  • Getting hot, sticky granola off of a wide, flat baking sheet into a skinny round container is an interesting challenge.  For many years, I had rebel granola escaping onto counters and even onto the floor.  Now, instead, I put the whole pan into a large clean paper grocery bag, or else into a clean pillow case.  That is, I stick the granola AND the baking pan into the bag.  I tilt the bag/pan upright and scrape the granola off the pan and in the bag.  After I remove the now-granola-less pan (score!), I add the flavor stuff, mix everything up and then cleanly transfer the granola from the bag into a container.  I think the bag idea is genius, if I do say so myself (and I do say so).  Yes!
Part III:  Some random, happy observations about granola.

$.  Homemade granola is much cheaper than any breakfast concoction you can buy pre-made in the store.  It's cheaper than pre-packaged cereal, even cheaper than store-bought granola.  Unlike home-made bread which goes stale or molds in a few days, granola stays good nearly forever, as far as I can tell.  It's seriously frugal.

$.  It looks much fancier than it is.  Which means, it makes great gifts.  (If I were gifting the granola to people, I'd even splurge a bit on the flavor/decoration ingredients, probably adding nuts or -- depending on the person -- chocolate chips).

$.  If you've never made granola before, then you don't know the total sensory joy of hot granola.  Fresh out of the oven, this makes a fantastic dinner accompaniment; there is always rejoicing from my boys when they smell granola baking.  It's a wonderful smell.

$.  Every new batch of granola can be a little bit different, so every new batch of granola . . . can get its OWN NAME!  Appalachian apple granola.  California coconut granola.  Summer sesame granola.  Even (when you're running out of ideas last minute), "Great Granola".  The possibilities are endless.


  1. We love granola here however this is one I am willing to have it cost a tad more for a completely nutritious point. I use either raw honey or maple syrup in mine for a sweetner rather than processed sugar and do use flax seed as well and use coconut oil. While it takes longer I heat it in an oven only at 155 degrees so not to break down the enzymes in it. It also does not stick, it does take quite awhile though!

    No matter how you make granola though it is YUMMY and makes a great cold cereal too!

    1. Poor to Rich spends way less on food than I do, so I bow to this.

      But for people who are trying to buy nutritious food for cheap, I'll just point out that maybe granola sweeteners aren't the most important place to splurge in order to get that big health effect. If you're just starting out, focus on the oats (high protein) and the fruit. The sweetener shows up in such small quantities (less than one tablespoon per serving) that you can't consider it a major source of vitamins and other nutrients. Check out
      to see how nutritionally bland even "healthy" honey is.

    2. One of the reasons I like to use raw honey is due to its high levels of antioxidant properties as long as you don't cook it out of it (not the liquid honey sold in stores) Where as white sugar blocks the immune system from working properly- 1 tsp of sugar can block an immune system for 4 hours. This is just a personal preference however for me though and I would not splurge on these type of sweeteners only to make granola---- these are items I typically have in my home for use in a variety of things.

      While I do cut corners in many areas the few extras I splurge on regularly are raw apple cidar vinegar, raw honey, flax seeds

      If I was only making granola then I would most definatly just use white sugar and concentrate on the actual healthy ingredients used.

      Over the years I have used all of these methods and they are ALL so delicous and always asked for when out!

      I so love your non recipe though as I am use to making smaller batches at a time! Thankyou so much for sharing it.

  2. Thank you for the... non-recipe :-)

    I want to try some of this. We never made granola at home. I think is not usual homemade food in my country. People that eat it usually buy it in small packages.

  3. What is the difference between "regular oats" and "quick oats"?

    I'm trying something similar following your directives. I'm using sweet quince that an acquaintance has given to us. Don't know if it will result sweet enough, but it's in the oven now and smells wonderfully.

    BTW, I don't know where you find the time to make and attend so many things... (jaw dropping).

    1. "Regular oats" (sometimes called "rolled oats") are the large grain. "Quick oats" are finely cut version of the grain. Cutting the grain finely reduces the amount of time it takes to boil the oats for oatmeal, which is why we call them "quick oats". But cutting the oats finer changes the texture and makes the oats (in my mind) more like flour than like kernels of grain.

      As for doing lots of things, well, I think anybody's activities sound more impressive from a distance than they appear to the person who's doing them. That's because you think about what it would be like to add my activities to what you're already doing. But I know that there are lots of things YOU do that I don't, and if I knew of those, I would think "I wouldn't have time for THAT!" -MM