Granola bars walk a fine line between wholesome snack and dessert. Many packaged granola bars stumble clumsily onto the dessert side of the line. By making granola bars at home—a task that is even easier than making granola at home—you can walk that line in a way that would make Johnny Cash proud. A proper homemade granola bar is nowhere near as sugary as a cookie, but is still delicious enough that you’ll want to come back for seconds and thirds and fourths. (And if you’re a parent, giving your kids homemade granola bars instead of the store-bought kind will give you extra ammunition for the mommy and daddy wars: There’s nothing like cooking from scratch to assert your moral superiority over other procreators.)
The most important thing to pay attention to, if you’re aiming for non-cloying granola bars, is the type of liquid sweetener you use. Granola bars typically rely on honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar—or sometimes just a mix of sugar and water—to moisten and flavor them. The problem is that by the time you add enough honey to adequately bind your dry ingredients, your granola bars will be way too sweet. The solution is to go ultra-crunchy: Use barley malt syrup (of bagel fame) or brown rice syrup, both available at your local health food store, as your main sweetener. These sticky substances are lower in fructose than honey and its ilk, which means that their flavor is subtler and more mellow. (It also means that you can use them even if you believe sugar is poison! Which you shouldn’t believe, by the way.)
Balance out that low level of background sweetness with a healthy pinch of salt and you’ll have plenty of leeway to play around with sweet additions: You can add dried fruit and even chocolate chips without worrying about making your bars too saccharine. The result is a generally restrained bar with occasional pockets of sweetness to jazz things up.
Keep in mind that “restrained” doesn’t mean “low-calorie.” The ingredients that make up the bulk of these granola bars—rolled oats, almonds, coconut, and peanut butter—are nutritious but substantial. This is a feature, not a bug: Granola bars should be hearty enough that they’d hypothetically power you through a trans-Appalachian hike, even if in reality you are using them to power you through a mid-afternoon sinking spell.
Chocolate Chip Granola Bars
Yield: 20 to 24 servings
Time: About 30 minutes
Oil for greasing the pan
3½ cups rolled oats
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
¾ cup whole raw almonds
¾ cup dried cranberries
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup creamy natural peanut butter
¾ cup barley malt syrup or brown rice syrup
2 tablespoons olive, grapeseed, or peanut oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch pan (or line it with parchment paper). Put the oats, chocolate chips, almonds, cranberries, coconut, and salt in a large bowl; stir to combine. Add the peanut butter, barley malt syrup, oil, and vanilla extract. Stir well to thoroughly incorporate the wet ingredients. Transfer the oat mixture to the pan, using a spatula or your hands to press it into an even layer.
2. Bake the granola bars until they begin to brown around the edges, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool completely before slicing and serving. (Store leftover granola bars in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a few days.)