This is a comprehensive look at how to make granola bars of every type. Let’s talk homemade granola bar recipes, and how you can make them chewy, crunchy, no bake, healthy and relatively low calorie, or with peanut butter and chocolate chips.
It’s your choice, once you know the ins and outs!
I make homemade granola bars every month of the year. But when it’s back-to-school time, I kick it into high gear. They’re perfect for breakfast, popping into lunch boxes (I have plenty of nut-free varieties), and just grabbing when we’re running out the door to practice, a game or an urgent I-need-a-special-pen-for-chemistry emergency.
My kids’ favorite granola bar varieties are the kinds that have the most sugar. Crispy and crunchy or soft and chewy, they might have some preferences around the edges. But I know they’re mostly in it for the sweet stuff.
I’ve published so many granola recipes, for the loose stuff and for the bars, over the years that I’ve got it down to a science. Actually, it’s one area of baking where you don’t need a super-strict formula, so I guess it’s more art than science.
When I make granola bars, I find that there are broad categories of ingredients that are largely interchangeable. So I thought I would share my granola bar philosophy with you, if you’re interested. Let’s get to it!
The Mix Ins, like chocolate chips
If you take a look at the photo above, you’ll find the biggest category of granola ingredients, by far: the mix-ins. All of these ingredients are raw (whenever possible) and unsalted. That way, we can flavor them to our liking.
From the top left in rows from left to right, you’ll find:
- roughly chopped raw almonds
- roughly chopped raw cashews (buy cashew pieces, though! cheaper and easier)
- chocolate chips
- pumpkin seeds
- slivered raw almonds
- pecan pieces
- small, dried fruit (like raisins, dried blueberries, chopped dried prunes or apricots)
- coconut flakes (I only use flakes in granola and granola bars, not shredded coconut, which tastes like dental floss in granola)
- chopped peanuts
But you should use your imagination! In no-bake granola bars, since you won’t be baking any of these raw nuts and seeds, you can toast them first. I like to toast nuts and seeds either on a baking sheet in a 300°F oven until fragrant or in a cast iron pan until fragrant.
In crunchy granola bars, raw nuts are first ground into flour before baking with them. It’s amazingly useful in creating a crunchy bar that has the protein and fats of nuts without the pieces.
If there’s a way to make granola bars without sugar, I don’t know what it is. Sugar performs tons of important functions in granola bars. At the top of the list is that it holds the bars together when it’s heated. And, of course, it adds sweetness and even some depth (depending upon the sugar).
You can use refined and/or unrefined sugars in granola and granola bars. The more important distinction for baking success comes from whether you’re using liquid or granulated sugars.
Clockwise from the top left in the photo above, you’ll find these sugars:
- Finely ground coconut palm sugar (ground finer in a food processor or blender) (unrefined)
- (Normal) coconut palm sugar (a darker color, and a much more coarse grind) (unrefined)
- Light brown sugar (refined)
- Pure maple syrup (unrefined)
- Unsulphured molasses (refined)
- Honey (unrefined, but not raw)
- White granulated sugar (the most refined!)
Whenever possible, I use unrefined sugars in granola and granola bars. I feel better about giving them to my children as they have some nutrients and tend to be more satisfying. Plus, they have much more depth of flavor than highly refined sugars like white granulated sugar. And brown sugar is simply white granulated sugar with molasses added to it anyway.
The granulated sugars are largely interchangeable in granola and granola bar recipes, and the liquid sugars like molasses, honey and maple syrup are as well. Honey is much thicker than maple syrup, though, and therefore stickier and more useful in holding bars together. Molasses is best used in moderation as it has a very strong flavor.
The most important thing to realize about these sugars is that, to hold granola bars together, the sugars must be heated. In bars that are baked in the oven, that’s how they’re heated. For no bake bars, you must cook the sugars on the stovetop before they do their work in the bars.
Fats and Aromatics
Forgive the tortured category of fats and aromatics, which doesn’t quite do this category justice. But I didn’t want the list of categories to be too long, so I went for it.
To make granola and granola bars, you need some fat. Fat is an indispensable flavor delivery system. Plus, it’s responsible for helping the other ingredients to brown without burning when they’re baked. And when it becomes firm again in the refrigerator or at room temperature (for some fats), it helps hold the bars together.
Pictured in the photo on the left above, clockwise from the left, are sunflower oil (any neutral oil will do), virgin coconut oil (clearly the healthiest of the bunch) and unsalted butter. Any fat that’s solid or semi-solid at room temperature will need to be melted to use in granola bar creation.
When I refer to aromatics, I’m talking about salt (which brings out other flavors, including sweetness), vanilla extract, and warm spices like ground cinnamon, nutmeg, even cloves or allspice if you like. For the most part, these ingredients are added to taste.
Then there’s the humble egg. I like to use an egg in chewy granola bars as it really helps with texture and to hold the softer bars together.
These are the ingredients that take up space in your granola bars. They don’t generally have a ton of crunch, and they’re mostly just, well, one form of oats or another.
First of all, if you’re in the U.S. and you’re gluten free, and wondering if oats are gluten free, well, they are. Now, with that out of the way, it’s very hard to make granola of any kind without oats. You can make Paleo granola, which is loose and not formed into bars, without oats and it’s quite lovely. Bars are another story.
I don’t ever buy quick-cooking oats or oat flour. I just buy certified gluten free (since my family eats gluten free—if you’re not gluten free, buy any oats you like!) old-fashioned rolled oats, and process them in a blender or food processor. I process them by about half (in quick bursts) for “quick-cooking oats,” and completely for oat flour.
In the photo above, you’ll find (from the top), old-fashioned rolled oats, quick-cooking oats, and oat flour. They all started out in my kitchen as old-fashioned rolled oats. It makes everything easier, and I never need oat flour to be completely smooth. I expect anything with oats to have some chew.
You can make granola bars completely without oats, too. I’ve even figured out how to substitute oats in every form in baking!
Puffed Rice Cereal
The final ingredient in this category of “bulk” is crisp rice cereal. I like to buy puffed rice that has two ingredients: rice and salt. If you’re gluten free like we are, I like Nature’s Path Organic brand and Erewhon puffed rice cereals.
You can actually buy salt-free puffed rice cereal and that works, too. But if you ever want to eat some in a bowl with maybe some fruit and milk, be sure to use the type that has a bit of salt.
If you’d like to replace the rice cereal with another crispy, dry cereal, hopefully, you have a better imagination than I do! I can’t think of another cereal that has the same size and pop (snap! crackle!).
Chewy Granola Bars
I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Chewy granola bars are made with tons of sugar. (See what I did there?)
The way to keep them soft and chewy? Lots of different kinds of sugars. They’re so incredibly delicious, and they taste much like the store-bought kind of granola bar.
Think of it like eating out at a restaurant. The food often tastes extra delicious for a few reasons. Not only did someone else make it for you(score!), but you’ll find tons more salt, fat and maybe sugar in the food than you generally use at home.
These granola bars are so, so good. But so, so bad. You can make them more virtuous by using unrefined granulated sugar like coconut palm sugar, and unrefined liquid sugars like honey and maple syrup. But sugar is sugar.
Crunchy Granola Bars
Crunchy granola bars are the easiest to make lower in sugar. Sugar is a tenderizer, and crunchy granola bars aren’t, well, tender. They’re crunchy! These are my personal favorite type of bar.
I love the combination of oats and puffed rice cereal (the cereal really helps them get and stay crunchy), and I love the relatively low sugar content. You can really taste the other ingredients. The nuts are finely ground, but you can make them yourself. You don’t need to buy already ground nut flours.
No Bake Granola Bars
My oldest calls these no bake granola bars the “ones that taste great but are bad for you.” And she’s right. We don’t have to use a candy thermomter and be all precise about it. But to make no-bake granola bars, we cook the sugars until they start to reach a “softball stage,” and then we mix them into the dry ingredients.
I don’t generally make these with any nuts at all, so they’re a great option for a nut-free school or camp. You can use nuts instead of some of the coconut flakes, if you like. These are very, very versatile. But don’t try to cut back on the sugar.
Another favorite variation on these is to add a bit of chopped chocolate 🍫 to the cooked sugars as they’re cooling. Mix until smooth and proceed with the recipe. If you’re going for it, go all the way!
We made it! We talked ingredients and theory, and I loved every minute. What can I say? I’m a wonk.
Anyway, knowledge is power. ⚡️The more you understand why a recipe calls for one type of ingredient over another, the more you can customize the recipe to your particular tastes and dietary needs. This is the last granola bar recipe you’ll ever need, really. Enjoy!