Even Chewier Granola Bars

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During the week of Passover, I received an email from one of the many food websites I subscribe to featuring the most beautiful macaroons I had ever seen. I immediately clicked on the link to read the post, examine the recipe, and check out the comments. But as I scrolled through the oohs and aahs, I came across one comment that made me pause:

“I can’t fathom why you would want sweetened coconut for anything, it’s full of preservatives and has the consistency of wet shredded Styrofoam. There’s sugar in the recipe anyway – do yourself a favor and get unsweetened coconut, it’s already sweet and delicious.”

Upon reading this, my first thought was, “I don’t like your tone Young Lady.” I didn’t — I mean, is it so hard to use our nice voices? My second thought was, “Maybe this rascal is on to something?” I have always used sweetened shredded coconut in my granola recipe, which I love, and which I haven’t thought about changing in years. But I decided to do some sleuthing even so. I pulled a bag of sweetened shredded coconut from my pantry and read the ingredient list: desiccated coconut, sugar, water, propylene glycol, salt, sodium metabisulfite (to retain color).

I googled propylene glycol to discover it is a “synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used by the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries as an antifreeze when leakage might lead to contact with food.” Furthermore, “the Food and Drug Administration has classified propylene glycol as an additive that is ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food.”

Hmmm. Generally recognized as safe for use in food. I hate to be an alarmist, and perhaps the amount of propylene glycol in sweetened shredded coconut is negligible, but this phrase got me thinking. For the odd macaroon or slice of quick bread, perhaps propylene glycol is not worth losing any sleep over. But for the bowl of granola consumed nearly every morning? A substitute was worth looking into. I mean, there wasn’t even that somewhat reassuring clause — “contains 2% or less of …” — printed before the ingredient in question. And even so, I don’t want to consume anything — ever — that is only “generally recognized as safe” no matter how small the amount.

I immediately made a batch of my granola substituting unsweetened flaked coconut (a one-ingredient product: natural unsulfured coconut) by weight for the shredded, sweetened coconut. Incredibly, the difference was virtually unnoticeable. The new batch browned the same as always, cooked in the same amount of time, and clustered upon cooling just as I like. When eaten plain or with milk, the granola tasted just as sweet. And when eaten with plain yogurt, the granola tasted slightly less sweet, an issue a little drizzling of honey quickly resolved. (Note: I was fortunate to have this result. Unsweetened flaked coconut, as I understand, cannot always be substituted so seamlessly for sweetened shredded coconut, so be warned when making this substitution in your favorite recipes. )

With my granola recipe updated, I began thinking about my granola bars, which also call for sweetened shredded coconut. But before I had a chance to experiment, a fortuitous conversation at the park with a friend led me to a different recipe entirely, one she had been making by the double batch several times a week for her family, who declared her a culinary goddess for being able to produce chewy, Quaker Oat-like granola bars at home.

I had to give the recipe a go, and I’m so glad I did. The granola bars not only held together at room temperature — a first for me in the no-bake genre — but also resembled the chewiest of the chewy store-bought varieties, a feat I thought only could be achieved by the workings of a host of hideous ingredients.

I have outlined in detail below the trial-and-error process of four batches of these bars, the last one producing the ideal granola bar for me: a tasty, incredibly chewy bar that contains healthful ingredients, no processed cereals, and no candy-like additions… boring, I know, but I like to feel good about eating these bars morning, noon and night. The recipe has evolved from one that called primarily for a mixture of instant oats and Rice Krispies cereal to one that contains a mixture of oats, sliced almonds, unsweetened coconut, and wheat germ. Obviously the bars can be tailored to your liking with additions such as dried fruit, nuts, seeds, wheat bran, oat bran, chocolate chips, etc. And while I have a favorite combination for the “glue” that binds the dry ingredients together — coconut oil, brown rice syrup, and Lyle’s Golden Syrup — there are options for substitutions here as well.

I thought I had found the perfect granola bar when I saw it arch into a backbend on my kitchen table. But this sort of acrobatic display is child’s play for these bars — sign these guys up for Cirque du Soleil.

Note: Not all sweetened, shredded coconut contains propylene glycol, so before you dismiss the ingredient entirely, check your bag. Trader Joe’s brand does not contain propylene glycol.

The photos of the finished bars throughout this post will all look slightly different — there are about four different variations pictured below. These are from round 1:
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My replacement for sweetened shredded coconut:
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Oats, unsweetened coconut, sliced almonds, wheat germ, and crispy brown rice cereal:
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Rice Krispies and Crispy Brown Rice cereals:
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The ingredients for the “glue”:
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An alternative to Rice Krispies, this Crispy Brown Rice cereal provides a nice texture without adding additional sweetness:
crispybrownricecereal

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Before I break down the whole trial and error process, let me make a disclaimer: at first glance, you might feel I am sending you off on a wild goose chase for a host of random ingredients. The truth is that there is only really one ingredient — brown rice syrup — that you might have a hard time finding, and that the ultimate make-up of the dry ingredients does not have to include processed cereal and can be tailored to your liking.

OK, here we go:

The basic composition of the original recipe is such: dry ingredients: 2 cups quick oats, 1 cup crispy rice cereal; wet ingredients: 1/4 cup of each of the following: butter or coconut oil, brown rice syrup, and honey or brown sugar; the flavorings: salt, vanilla, and a few tablespoons of raisins.

Round 1: dry ingredients: 2 cups quick oats, 1 cup Rice Krispies cereal; wet ingredients: 1/4 cup coconut oil, 1/4 cup brown rice syrup, 1/4 cup golden syrup*. the flavorings: 1 teaspoon (original recipe calls for 1/8 tsp) kosher salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla. I omitted the raisins because my eldest child dismisses foods with raisins before even tasting them.

*I discovered golden syrup while searching for a substitute for the corn syrup in my granola bar recipe. I find it yields a chewier texture than honey, which is why I have used it here.

Round 1 results: Incredible texture — completely chewy resembling the best textured store-bought granola bars you can imagine. That said, I had a few issues. For one, I found them a little too sweet. Second, I don’t like the idea of having to buy Rice Krispies cereal, which is not something I generally have on hand.

Searching for a substitute for the Rice Krispies was the next step. In the natural foods section of my grocery store, I found Crispy Brown Rice (Erewhon brand) with this ingredient list: Organic brown rice, organic brown rice syrup, and sea salt. If I could keep the total weight (about 225 grams) of the oats and crispy rice cereal the same, with any luck the texture of the bar would not be compromised and the sweetness issue would be resolved. So, I substituted by weight Crispy Brown Rice for Rice Krispies in round 2:

Round 2: dry ingredients: 200 grams (about 2 cups) quick oats, 25 grams (less than a cup) Crispy Brown Rice cereal. wet ingredients: same as round 1. the flavorings: same as round 1.

Round 2 results: Perfect sweetness with that same incredible texture. At this point, I felt I had discovered the proper ratio of dry ingredients (225 grams) to wet ingredients (3/4 cup — sorry I don’t have a weight for this).

On to the next issue. Although I loved the texture of the bars from the first two rounds, I did find that they slightly resembled in texture that of a Rice Krispie treat, which is a beautiful thing, but truthfully not the ideal for me in a granola bar. The next step: reduce the amount of crispy rice cereal and add in some other healthful ingredients keeping the total weight of the dry ingredients between 225 and 235 grams.

Round 3: 1 cup (100 g) quick oats, 1/2 cup (18 g) rice cereal, 1/2 cup (42 g) unsweetened shredded coconut, 1/2 cup (56 g) sliced almonds, 3 tablespoons (16 g) wheat germ. wet ingredients: same as round 1. the flavorings: same as round 1.

Round 3 results: Perfect sweetness and texture — the reduction of crispy brown rice cereal eliminated the semblance to Rice Krispie treats. The inclusion of coconut, almonds, and wheat germ not only added flavor and texture, but also some nutritional value.

At this point, I had only one real issue to resolve: having to buy crispy rice cereal to make these bars. Neither Rice Krispies or Crispy Brown Rice cereal (which as far as I can tell contains all good stuff) is something I want to be purchasing at the grocery store. Even when the ingredient lists on these cereals are on the friendly side, they are still processed foods. If I can avoid having to buy them, I do. So, for the last batch, I cut out the Crispy Brown Rice cereal entirely:

Round 4: 118 g (the weight of 1 cup quick oats plus 1/2 cup crispy brown rice cereal) cup quick oats, 1/2 cup (42 g) unsweetened shredded coconut, 1/2 cup (56 g) sliced almonds, 3 tablespoons (16 g) wheat germ. wet ingredients: same as round 1. the flavorings: same as round 1.

Round 4 results: Only the slightest compromise in texture — the bars can still do a backbend — with the same lovely flavor. After I finish my box of crispy brown rice cereal, I will likely not repurchase another. I can live with the slightly less ideal texture if it means not having to buy one other ingredient at the store.

Chewy No-Bake Granola Bars

Adapted from this Momables recipe
Yield = 18 bars

Notes: I have never used butter, but apparently it works well. Brown rice syrup can be hard to track down — I can find it at Wegmans in the gluten-free aisle. I have not tried honey, because I have really taken to Lyle’s Golden Syrup, but my friend who makes these all the time always uses honey. This friend also has warned me that the brown sugar does not yield as chewy a bar. Finally, the make-up of the dry ingredients can be tailored to your liking. Just try to aim for around 225 – 235 grams of dry ingredients for the given amount of wet ingredients.

1 cup (100g) quick-cooking oats*
1/2 cup (18g) low-sugar crisp rice cereal* (optional)
1/2 cup (42g) unsweetened flaked coconut (I like Bob’s Red Mill brand)
1/2 cup (56g) sliced almonds
3 tablespoons (16g) wheat germ
1 teaspoon (8g) kosher salt

1/4 cup coconut oil or butter
1/4 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup or honey or brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

* Though I haven’t yet tried this, I imagine rolled oats might work OK here, too? If you only have rolled oats on hand and want to use them, you might consider giving them a brief whizz in the food processor. I will report back on this when I get around to experimenting with rolled oats.

**I used Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice cereal, which I found at Wegmans in the natural foods section. If you want to omit the cereal, up the oats (or other ingredient of choice) by 18 grams. This omission will not affect the flavor but the texture of the final bar will be slightly less chewy.

1. Line an 8×8-inch or 9×9-inch pan with parchment paper. If you have clips of any kind, secure the parchment paper to the edge of the pan. I have used both pan sizes to make these and don’t have a preference. Obviously, the 8×8-inch pan yields a slightly thicker bar, but the chewiness factor does not seem to be affected by the size of the pan. Set aside.

2. Combine the oats, cereal, coconut, almonds, wheat germ and salt in a large mixing bowl. As noted above, this mixture should weigh about 225 – 235 grams, so feel free to use your ingredients of choice. Set aside.

3. In a small saucepan, combine the coconut oil or butter, brown rice syrup, golden syrup or honey or brown sugar. Place the pan over high heat; have a heat-proof spatula and a timer nearby. When the mixture begins to bubble up, immediately reduce the heat to low or medium low. Stir constantly for 4 minutes, taking the pan off the heat initially as necessary to calm the bubbling. I find that even on my lowest setting, my mixture gently bubbles. You probably could get away with not stirring constantly for the last couple of minutes, but I always do to be safe. The mixture should be gently bubbling for the entire 4 minutes. Remove pan from the heat, pour it over the dry ingredients, add the teaspoon of vanilla and stir to combine thoroughly. (Note: you probably could add the vanilla to the hot pan, but I always feel that it sizzles (and perhaps evaporates?) upon contact with the hot liquid, which perhaps reduces its flavor enhancing? Just thoughts, nothing scientific, so add the vanilla as you see fit.)

4. Spread the granola bar mixture into your prepared pan. Pat down with a spatula. Place another sheet of parchment paper over top and using your hands or a flat-bottomed measuring cup pack down the mixture as tightly and evenly as possible. Set aside for 2 hours before cutting into bars.

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32 Comments

  1. Love the Cirque du Soleil shapes! I have a couple (okay like 10) recipes for chewy no-bake granola bars and most of them include oats, krispy rice cereal, and PB and a sweetener (honey, agave, corn syrup, maple, etc.) I made a “glue” by heating the liquid sweetener usually with brown sugar and pour it over everything and bars are born. I love all your trials and error descriptions of what you tweaked. Perfect finished product!

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  2. These are the best looking granola bars I’ve ever seen… and this is the most comprehensive how-to post I’ve ever read for making our own bars at home.

    Thank you!

    ¤´¨)
    ¸.•´¸.•*´¨) ¸.•*¨)
    (¸.•´ (¸.•`¤… Jennifer
    Jenn’s Random Scraps

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  3. And, this is why I read food blogs. No more sweetened coconut for me. I’m going to try this with my coconut cake. Your granola bars are so beautiful and well thought out. This is a great snack. Pinning.

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    • Angela — I received an email from a Reader letting me know that Trader Joe’s brand (so probably others as well) sells sweetened shredded coconut without any propylene glycol or other preservatives. So, don’t dismiss the ingredient entirely! I made a note in the post, too.

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    • Darcy — it was a team effort! Seriously, everyone in the family loves them. I am making another variation today with rolled oats and some dried fruit and more nuts and maybe some oat bran…fingers crossed…that’s a lot of changes in the variables :)

      Megan — you are funny!

      Calliope — Just be sure to check the bag — yours might not contain propylene glycol. Trader Joe’s, a Reader pointed out, sells a brand that does not contain any nasties.

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  4. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this. I also use sweetened coconut in my granola which I eat sometimes twice a day. So, I’m eating about a bag of coconut every week… How much anti-freeze is that!?! It’s very unsettling. This is an important reminder to always read the label, regardless of how benign the item may seem.
    Thanks again.
    Love your blog, BTW. :)

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  5. Ha, ha, this story brings back such memories! I used to be in the food development industry and had arguments with people about how one CAN find unsweetened coconut flakes that WILL work well in recipes! Sweetened coconut flakes are, well, not what I would consider “real” food anymore. Some seriously not so good stuff in there! Anyway, love this blog and love this recipe. This one makes it to our snacks Pinterest board: http://pinterest.com/deliciouskarma/snazzy-snacks

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    • Michelle — isn’t it crazy? Glad to hear that I’m not being a total alarmist. I did receive an email from a reader that Trader Joe’s sells sweetened shredded coconut with no bad stuff in it, so I’m curious about that product. I wonder if it will work well in recipes. I miss my Trader Joe’s! Thanks for pinning this!

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  6. These bars are beautiful! But I tried to make them today and it was a complete failure. I used your substitutions of butter and brown sugar (plus the brown rice syrup). I stirred and stirred while it bubbled for 4 minutes but when I poured it over the dry ingredients it didn’t nearly coat them and I was left with chunks and lots of dry crumbles. Delicious, but not bars. Any suggestions?

    Also, a side question: I’m new to the world of coconut oil and decided not to buy it for one recipe. I was amazed looking at nutritional label that 1 tbs contains 63% of your saturated fat for the day. What’s the deal with coconut oil? Is it terrible for you? (still trying to make sense of nutrition). Thanks! Love the site, Kate

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    • Kate, oh no! I did make a note of this before the recipe but my friend who passed along the original recipe said that brown sugar was the one ingredient that didn’t create the chewy texture — it left her with crumbs, too.

      One question: did you use a scale to measure or measuring cups?

      There’s a chance the weight of your dry ingredients was too much relative to the liquid. I’m sorry about the brown sugar :(

      Do you have honey?

      I think I probably should just remove the brown sugar as an ingredient, because I think a lot of people will be tempted to use it — I’m surprised actually that it doesn’t work with this recipe bc I feel like brown sugar is what makes things like blondies so chewy, but alas, these food science situations always puzzle me.

      Next time, if you feel like giving it another go, I would try honey or Lyle’s in place of the brown sugar, and maybe just go a little lighter on the measurements — do scant half cups and scant cups, etc initially — and then you can always add more dry ingredients if it looks too wet. I know it’s hard to match up photos, but if you can compare the photo in the post of the granola bar mixture (wet and dry combined) in the mixing bowl (it’s the 10th picture in the post) to your mixture, that might be helpful.

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  7. Incredible! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I added hemp seeds and some chopped dates to mine, and used the coconut oil + brown rice syrup + Lyle’s combo.
    The only thing I’ll change next time is reducing the salt to 1/2 teaspoon.

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    • Jill — wonderful to hear this! And I can see how you might want to decrease the salt. I should make a note. Love the idea of adding hemp seeds and chopped dates. I love dates. Have you ever used chia seeds? A friend gave me a bag before she moved, and I’m wondering how best to use them.

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      • Ha! I was just thinking about adding some to my next (5th!) batch of these bars and came back to see if you had mentioned them in your headnotes!
        My mum gave me a bag of chia seeds and I haven’t cracked it open yet since I too am at a loss for how to use them. She soaks them in a bit of water and then adds the mixture to her smoothies, claiming it thickens them up and gives them a nice mouthfeel (be warned, though: you need to drink the smoothie right then and not put it in the fridge for later servings or it will continue to thicken and become pretty gelatinous).

        How did your batch go with the added nuts? I added pumpkin seeds to one of mine and while still delicious, the bars didn’t quite hold together the same way – I’ll be sticking with nice, skinny sliced almonds from here on out.

        Also going in to the next batch: candied ginger. And maybe some cardamom.

        I can’t thank you enough for this recipe. I had been trying granola bar recipes for about 2 years without ever finding one that I really loved. These are so good I actually have to ration myself to only one a day.

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  8. We love to throw a big handful of chia seeds into our tuna fish mixture for sandwiches! It adds a nice crunch and more protein!

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  9. I’ve been using this recipe as a jumping off point for about a month now, adding some things and tweaking it a bit. My son is gluten, nut, and soy free, so I have been making a double batch of these at least once a week and we all love them!

    Rolled oats work just fine. The first time I popped them in my blender for a bit, but I haven’t bothered since then, and can’t tell the difference.

    I swapped out the almonds for chopped pumpkin seeds, and also added some tiny organic chocolate chips (my 4 year old is convinced that granola bars aren’t granola bars without chocolate chips). To prevent melting, I mix everything but the chips together, and let it cool for about 5-10 minutes before adding them and pressing them into the pan.

    I use honey for the golden syrup and also add a few heaping tablespoons of sunflower butter after it’s done boiling, to add additional protein.

    And, yes there is more, I swapped out the wheat germ for ground flax, and also added 1/4 cup of ground chia seeds, also for additional protein etc.

    That’s part of the reason this recipe is so fabulous- its super flexible. You don’t have to measure super precisely either, and can add your own things. Love it! Thanks for sharing it!

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    • I am so happy to hear all of this! I have been making nut-free versions, too, for my kids’ school lunches. I should try adding sunflower seeds — great idea. I also have sunflower butter on hand for school lunches, so I will try that, and thank you so much for the tip on the chocolate chips because I made a batch recently with chocolate chips, but folded them in when everything was too hot, and they melted, which was fine, but it’s kind of nice to bite into a solid chocolate chip, right? I am so happy that you have been able to adapt this recipe so that it works with your son’s diet, and I am so happy you have had success overall with it. Thanks so much for writing in!

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  10. Oh yes, Golden Syrup was always in our home when I was a child. I was born in the UK and some of the recipes we used this syrup for were, Suet Pudding with warm syrup poured over the top, English Flapjacks (which are similar to Granola Bars), Treacle Tart (my husband’s favourite) and also my husband has warm Golden Syrup poured over his pancakes. I can remember my MIL making Treacle Bread, which wasn’t treacle but Golden Syrup soaked bread which is then fried in butter. I have to say that we are eating a lot healthier now!! When we do have syrup, it has to be Tate & Lyle as no other syrup will do. Thank you for your beautiful website. I have made the Peasant Bread which is delicious too.

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    • I have been dying to make a treacle tart! Now, is that with bread crumbs? Or am I thinking of something else. I would love to know your recipe if you feel like sharing — no pressure. And the treacle bread sounds unbelievably delectable. Yum. Thanks so much for writing in! So glad you like the peasant bread.

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  11. Hi Alexandra!

    If I want to add a nut butter, should I alter any of the wet ingredients? And have you tried it – will it affect the texture?

    Reply

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