Here at Serious Eats headquarters, the idea of a grand granola tasting was met with negligible enthusiasm (unlike talk of comprehensive chocolate chip cookie and ice cream roundups). As a lonely and genuine lover of granola, I appointed myself granola headmistress.
I've always wondered why granola received health-food status. I know it's theoretically made of crunchy, healthy goodness: nuts, seeds, and whole grains. But I also know that it's fat-, calorie-, and sugar-laden, and should probably be eaten in moderation.
The Life and Times of Granola
It turns out that granola has a health-food genealogy. It was conceived by James Jackson, prodigy of Sylvester Graham. Graham, father of the graham cracker, was a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who advocated restraining from meat, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and white bread. Sounds like a fun guy.
It was Jackson's revelation to form graham flour into sheets, bake it until dry, break it into pieces, bake it again, and crumble it up into still smaller bits. He termed his invention "granula." John Harvey Kellogg, of cereal fame, baked and ground up whole grains and called his creation "granula," too. When Jackson sued, Kellogg changed the name to "granola."
Catchy names didn't make much of a difference. Granola was not particularly popular until the 1960s, when hippies rediscovered and revived the cereal. They added fruits and nuts, hereafter causing granola to be equated with bohemia.
By the 1970s, big national cereal companies were making the stuff. Thanks in part to Bear Naked, granola is now in the midst of a second renaissance. Proof is in the dizzying array of granola available at the grocery store.
For me, granola is a treat, and I want it to taste that way. My platonic-ideal granola is only a touch sweet, quite crunchy, full of big clusters, and bursting with nuts, fruits and seeds. I like the toasty flavors and the golden hue that come from plenty of time in the oven.
We set out to investigate the grocery store granola offerings. Although we have big stomachs and big ambitions, trying every flavor from every brand proved impossible. Instead, we selected fairly standard flavors of 14 fairly standard brands to compare (thus skipping some of the more offbeat offerings, like those infused with chocolate.)
We conducted a blind tasting in which we thoughtfully munched away, rating each granola's sweetness, flavor, clusteriness and crunch. We also examined the goodies lurking in our granola—from the standard raisins, to dried apples and glazed walnuts.
Although I couldn't find granola perfection on the grocery store shelves (I achieved it in my kitchen), we did find six brands that warranted granola seals of approval. These were our top six:
(We purchased our granola in New York City; prices may vary.)
Granola Grand Champion
Familia Swiss Müesli Granola
Everything a granola should be: clustery, crunchy, not too sweet, and sufficiently nutty and full of raisins. We all like the way the big morsels taste: citrusy and peanut buttery, maybe because of the sunflower oil.
Half a cup has 226 calories and 10 grams of fat. $4.99 for 12 ounces. bio-familia.com
Bear Naked Native Maple Hemp Walnut Granola
The anthropology major in me is vaguely offended. The natives shelling out their money for high-end granola are imaginary, but they have good taste. I love the granola's sugary, cinnamon-glazed walnuts, and would plumb the bag to snatch them out like the lucky charms. The granola is quite sweet and dessert-like—we taste butter and brown sugar. (Turns out the Native Granola flavor is no longer made or sold! The very friendly Bear Naked man I talked to on the phone suggested their Peak Protein Granola as a substitute.)
Half a cup has 280 calories and 12 grams of fat. $5.49 for 12 ounces. bearnaked.com
365 Organic Fruit & Nut Granola
This was one of my favorites. No surprise that it so much more caloric and fatty than the rest—it tasted rich to me, and others picked up on a buttery taste. This boasts the most generous amount of goodies: it's full of cranberries, raisins, almonds, pecans, and coconut. The color is pale, though, and it tastes a bit undercooked. If you're shopping at Whole Foods it's a good bang for the buck—$3.99 for a 17 ounce box.
Half a cup has 240 calories and 11 grams of fat. $3.99 for 17 ounces. wholefoodsmarket.com
Kellogg's Low Fat Granola with Raisins
Many recognized this as the standard granola of their childhood. It gets pretty high scores across the board: nice crunch, just raisiny enough, aesthetically pleasing. Most of the granola we tried are true to their health food roots, but this one's ingredients include sugar, corn syrup, modified corn starch, palm oil, high fructose corn syrup, and a bunch of stuff I can't pronounce. Yet it is unarguably pleasant—it has that definitive American breakfast cereal thing going on.
Half a cup has 173 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. $6.29 for 18 ounces. kelloggs.com
Nature's Path Organic Pumpkin Flax Plus Granola
A granola lightweight! The texture is wispy and airy, which is not what I want from my granola (I like a snappy crunch). But Nature's Path gets good marks for its subtle flavor, not too sweet flavor, and abundant pumpkin seeds.
Half a cup has 140 calories and 5 grams of fat. $2.69 for 11.5 ounces. naturespath.com
Trader Joe's Just the Clusters Maple Pecan Granola
Way clustery! It is indeed as if the Trader Joe's people went after granola bars with hammers. It is very light in color on the granola hue spectrum. I took issue with the texture, which I found kind of mealy and sandy, maybe because rice is the third ingredient after oats and sugar. Others liked its clean maple taste. Can't argue with the price, either.
Half a cup has 188 calories and 7.5 grams of fat. $3.69 for 16 ounces. traderjoes.com
The Best Granola of All
Inspired by my granola investigation, I set out to make my own. Would my granola live up to the big box brands? (I riffed on an Alton Brown recipe.)
The container I brought into Serious Eats HQ was devoured at once, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge of pride when Ed suggested I start selling my granola.
I got carried away adding nuts and other goodies like banana chips. Raphael inquired whether the rich concoction's ridiculously high nut to oat ratio would de-qualify it from the "granola" category. I don't think so. Besides, it's delicious sprinkled on yogurt or ice cream, or eaten right out of your hand.
Granola is way easy to make. Just take old fashioned oats (not quick-cooking) and your nuts and seeds of choice, add some sweetness (like brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey), and some fat (usually vegetable oil), and toast in the oven. If you want you can throw in cinnamon, nutmeg, or any other enticing flavors. Dried fruit gets added to the mix after the oats and nuts are done toasting. Or, just make my Serious Eats-approved granola.
Trust me, the best granola is the stuff you make in your kitchen.