Why It Works
- Buttermilk tenderizes the oats, wheat germ, flax, and chia.
- Soaking the grains expresses their natural starch, creating clumpy nuggets.
- Sugar interferes with water absorption in oats, so it's not added until later on.
- Buttermilk's acidity prevents the grains from browning too quickly as they bake.
- A unique blend of dried fruits and nuts provides a compelling mix of flavors, colors, and textures.
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.
What Is the Ideal Granola?
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.
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 don't believe it's 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.
The Key to Clusters
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 to over 12 ounces of oats in only 20 minutes.
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.
Sugar vs. Maple Syrup or Honey
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). 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.
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 here are the ones I buy for myself.
Baking the Granola
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 (150°C) 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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
How to Make the Lightest, Crispiest Granola
For the Granola:
12 ounces old-fashioned rolled oats, not instant, quick, or steel-cut (about 3 1/2 cups; 340g)
1 1/2 ounces wheat germ (about 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon; 40g)
1 ounce flax seeds, optional (about 3 tablespoons; 30g)
1/2 ounce chia seeds (about 1 heaping tablespoons; 15g)
8 ounces buttermilk (about 1 cup; 225g)
4 ounces unsalted butter, melted (about 8 tablespoons; 115g)
7 ounces plain or toasted sugar (about 1 cup; 200g)
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
For the Mix-Ins:
4 1/4 ounces raw pumpkin seeds (about 3/4 cup; 120g)
2 1/2 ounces chopped almonds (about 1/2 cup; 70g)
2 1/4 ounces pecan pieces (about 1/2 cup; 65g)
1 teaspoon neutral oil, such as safflower
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
4 ounces dried apricots, quartered (about 1/2 cup, firmly packed; 115g)
3 ounces dried tart cherries (about 1/2 cup; 85g)
2 ounces dried blueberries (about 1/3 cup, firmly packed; 55g)
For the Granola: In a medium bowl, combine rolled oats, wheat germ, flax seeds (if using), and chia. Toss with a flexible spatula to combine, then stir in buttermilk and melted butter. Cover with plastic or a kitchen towel and set aside until oats are stiff and dry, about 20 minutes (the chia will look a little fuzzy, but that's normal). Stir in sugar and salt, cover, and let stand until the mixture looks loose and damp from the dissolved sugar, about 30 minutes.
For the Mix-Ins: Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (175°C). Combine pumpkin seeds, chopped almonds, and pecan pieces on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan and toast until fragrant and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, toss with oil, then sprinkle with salt; reserve the parchment-lined half-sheet pan. Stir in dried apricots, dried cherries, and dried blueberries too.
To Bake the Granola: Reduce oven temperature to 300°F (150°C). When the sugar has dissolved, scrape oats onto the parchment-lined half-sheet pan and spread into an even layer. Bake until uniformly golden brown and dry to the touch, about 100 minutes, pausing every 25 minutes or so to take the mixture from the oven to stir well with a pair of forks.
When the oats are golden brown and dry to the touch, transfer to the bowl of fruit and nuts. Toss with a flexible spatula until well combined, then return to the baking sheet and spread in an even layer to cool, about 45 minutes. As soon as the granola has cooled, transfer to an airtight container and store up to 6 weeks at room temperature.
Flexible spatula, half sheet pan
Small packages of dried fruit can be wildly expensive; look to stores that sell in bulk or else shop online. These are my favorite brands of dried apricots, tart cherries, and blueberries. When making substitutions, think about the flavors, textures, and colors you're replacing, and choose a fruit with a similar profile.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 19 to 20|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 13g||16%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||19%|
|Total Carbohydrate 33g||12%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||18%|
|Total Sugars 15g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||5%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|