For the Lightest, Crispiest Granola, Grab the Buttermilk

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Natalie Holt]

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I am an unabashed granola snob, mercilessly taking down most every recipe that crosses my path. They're always too sweet, too gnarly, too aggressively spiced, or too dangerously hard, with jagged chunks that'll do more damage to the roof of your mouth than a box of Cap'n Crunch.

I want nothing to do with a sad sea of brown flakes and brown fruit, or granola that's bitter and burned from overcooked honey. Eggs are also a deal breaker for me—they push the dish into abstract-cookie territory that feels anathema to what granola should be.

In my book, that's a mix of free-flowing oat flakes and clusters that are light and crisp. My perfect granola is hearty and well seasoned, with just a touch of caramelized sweetness and a kaleidoscope of dried fruits, toasted seeds, and crunchy nuts.

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By now, I hope everyone knows that deliciousness is my prime directive. So when I tell you that my granola depends on wheat germ and chia seeds, please believe it isn't some sort of new-age scam to get more fiber in your diet. Despite their hippy vibe, these ingredients are insanely tasty in granola. Wheat germ adds a nutty, graham cracker-like flavor and crunch, while chia's nuttiness is a little more floral, like poppy seeds, but with a more satisfying pop. They're completely optional from a technical standpoint, but they add a make-or-break heartiness (in terms of both flavor and texture) that you don't wanna miss.

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With the grain/seed blend squared away, the secret to making light and tender granola with lots of natural clusters comes out of left field—buttermilk. Anyone who's made overnight oats knows that old fashioned rolled oats will soften beautifully when soaked in milk, but for granola, buttermilk is even better, since its acidity helps tenderize as well. It's a naturally low-fat dairy product, so it won't make the granola too rich, and just eight ounces will plump over 12 ounces of oats in only 20 minutes.

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[Before and after soaking in buttermilk.]

That's a transformation you won't see in any other recipe, which is why so many granolas are dense and hard. But by allowing the grains to soak and swell, they become porous and light when they bake, as steam escapes in the oven. Soaking also causes the oats to express their starch, which causes the mixture to clump, producing lots of natural clusters and preventing the chia seeds and wheat germ from sinking to the bottom of the bag. Along with buttermilk, I do add some melted butter for a welcome richness and flavor. But don't worry—in a recipe that yields about three pounds of granola it's a very modest amount. And for vegans out there, coconut oil (virgin or refined) will make a fine substitution.

Once the oats have plumped, I stir in a bit of plain or toasted sugar and a generous pinch of salt (if added earlier, the sugar will prevent the buttermilk from soaking into the oats).

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Sugar may not sound as exciting as honey or maple syrup, but those comparatively high-fructose sugars are eager to burn in the oven, making the granola bitter and dark. Sugar, on the other hand, only gets better with prolonged heat. Give it a chance to dissolve in the buttermilk-soaked oats before baking, and it'll form a light syrup that coats every flake, producing a beautifully caramelized granola with a flavor that's complex and none too sweet.

While the grains are soaking and the sugar is dissolving, I prepare my mix-ins: a rainbow blend of raw pumpkin seeds, almonds, and pecans, along with dried apricots, tart cherries, and blueberries.

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It's my dream team blend of flavors, colors, and textures, and they play off each other (and the granola) exceptionally well—buttery pecans and sweet blueberries; crunchy almonds and bright cherries, delicate pumpkin seeds and chewy apricots. You can make substitutions, of course, but try to think about what each of these different ingredients has to offer when choosing a replacement. While seeds and nuts can be picked up at any supermarket, most dried fruit is significantly cheaper if you buy in bulk, whether in stores or online; the brands linked above are the ones I buy for myself.

When the sugar has mostly dissolved and the oats seem a little wet, transfer the granola to a half sheet pan and bake at 300°F until dry to the touch and golden brown, though perhaps a bit soft while warm. That can take anywhere from 90 to 100 minutes depending on the air flow in your oven (natural circulation, not convection, which would dry the oats too rapidly).

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Regardless, no oven is perfect, so be sure to take the granola out every 25 minutes to stir, making a special effort to circulate the granola from the edges to the center for even browning. Once it's dry to the touch and golden brown, pour it over the dried fruit and nut blend, then toss to combine.

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Tossing drops the temperature of the granola, helping it to cool a little faster, and any loose chia seeds or wheat germ will more readily stick to the fruit while warm. Return the granola to the baking sheet and spread into a thin, even layer to cool. I aim to let it hit room temperature, whatever that may be; the real point is to give it ample time to shed excess heat and steam.

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This should take about 45 minutes; if left out indefinitely, the granola can turn sticky or soft, so do try to put it away as soon after cooling as you can. In an airtight container, the granola will keep for several months, though I've yet to have a batch last longer than three or four weeks in my house.

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It's so light and crisp—delicate in a way that's unusual for granola—that I find myself eating it out of hand like popcorn as often as I have it over yogurt for breakfast (which is, at this point, every day).

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