Kitchen detective: Customize granola to your family's taste

Christopher Kimball

So, what’s wrong with simply buying granola at the supermarket? Well, it is often too sweet, includes ingredients you don’t like, tastes old and stale or, worse yet, includes items (nuts for example) that someone in your family is allergic to. Granola can be fantastic if done right, but the commercial varieties never quite make it all the way to “terrific” — it is always a trade-off.

We decided to start with one pound of oats, which is about 4 1/2 cups. The brand we favored most for its sweet, nutty flavor is McCann’s, which conveniently comes in a one-pound box. This recipe calls for quick-cooking oats, as they crisp up nicely. Nuts are almost always included in granola. Unfortunately, the most common addition is walnuts, which are often bitter. Although we tested cashews, peanuts, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia, pistachios and Brazil nuts, our hands-down favorite proved to be almonds, which have a subtle, sweet flavor that works well with the other ingredients. For this recipe, we found whole almonds were too large and much preferred either sliced or slivered. We used 1 cup in our favorite version. No matter which you choose, we suggest 1 cup of toasted, unsalted nuts for best flavor.

Sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds are common ingredients as well. Actually, we liked the textures and flavors of all three seeds in the granola. In general, we favored roasted and unsalted versions of the sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Sesame seeds are never salted, but it should be noted that raw sesame seeds have little flavor compared to roasted, so we definitely favored the roasted. In our final version of the granola, we used 3/4 cup each pumpkin and sunflower seeds and 1/3 cup sesame seeds. We also tested sweetened as well as unsweetened coconut and much preferred the sweetened, as it had more flavor and became pleasantly golden brown and crisp during the baking.

In terms of dried fruit, raisins and cranberries are perfect since they don’t require any chopping. We also liked the flavor and texture of dried blueberries, dried apricots, dried cherries and dried strawberries. Fruit needs to be added after the granola has baked and cooled. Otherwise the fruit dries out, loses flavor and becomes leathery. We added 2 cups of fruit in total, although the type and amount can be altered to suit your taste.

Granola calls for some type of fat to keep the ingredients from drying out as it toasts and helping to blend flavors. We tested butter and/or various types of oil in our recipe. It turned out the best flavor came from canola or vegetable oil. With either of them, the granola wasn’t at all greasy and it had a clean flavor. In sweetening our granola, we tried using brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup and molasses. Our clear favorite proved to be honey, as its flavor is especially delicious with the other ingredients. We tried combining the honey with other sweeteners, but continued to prefer the batch made from honey exclusively.

We didn’t want the granola to be bogged down with lots of spices, as we wanted the flavor of the nuts and grains to be at the forefront. However, we found a small amount of spice to be a welcome addition. Cinnamon was delicious in our granola, and we used 1 teaspoon for best flavor. Along with the cinnamon we added 1/2 teaspoon each ground ginger and nutmeg, which proved to be terrific complements. We also added one 1/2 salt, which punched up the flavor.

As for method, all the dry ingredients except the fruit are combined in a large bowl. The oil and honey are stirred in until evenly distributed. Next, the mixture is spread onto baking sheets. Recipes varied greatly in oven temperature and baking times. In the end, we settled on 250 degrees for about 90 minutes. Once the granola is completely cooled, it can be broken up into small pieces and the fruit is added. It keeps very well in an airtight container.