I don’t know whether recipes have changed in the last decade or whether my taste buds have, but these days, prefab protein bars disgust me. The ingredient list is like something found on a box of weed killer, and they taste like a reheated dog turd and Brussels sprout burrito bought at the 7-11. Also, the last protein bar I ate, the Atkins Advantage, gave me the uniquely nauseating and painful sensation of very large oily bubbles trying to colonize my stomach through armed insurgency. I discovered after some research that many folks experience “intestinal distress” after consuming the sugar alcohols that commercial protein bars are laced with. Recently I attended a bodybuilding show to cheer on an acquaintance. In the lobby I was offered a bag of “caramel protein popcorn”, which appeared to contain neither caramel nor popcorn, although it had a very long list of multisyllabic ingredients. I discreetly discarded the culinary horror as soon as possible.
I began experimenting with a protein bar fomulation. The most “artificial” thing the bar could contain was protein powder. I discovered a brand of whey protein sweetened with stevia, a natural herbal sweetener. I hit upon the following concoction, which I have expressed as a set of principles rather than a set recipe. Feel free to experiment and add other things.
The two things you’ll need for sure are protein powder and a binding agent to hold it together. The most rudimentary protein mixture is simply protein powder combined with natural peanut or other nut butter. This has a taste and texture rather like halvah. But I find it a bit crumbly, personally. So I decided to add another binding agent and another flour-like substance to give it a bit of body.
Basic ingredient 1: flour. You needn’t use regular flour. Just take large flake oats, or another type of unprocessed grain flake, and put it in the food processor. Whiz it till it’s a fine grainy flour. It doesn’t need to be super-fine; something about the texture of sand will do. If you have a coffee grinder or a really good food processor, you can also make flour from nuts and seeds (great for folks who are on grain or gluten-free diets). Try all kinds of nuts and seeds, including sunflower, poppy, chia, flax, and hemp seeds as well as coconut. This will often lend the bars a wonderful flavour. OilSeedWorks makes hemp, flax, and sunflower seed flour. You can even try carob or mesquite pod flour. What the heck!
Basic ingredient 2: protein powder. Your choice here of whatever type and/or flavour you prefer. I find vanilla works well.
Basic ingredient 3: peanut or another nut butter. Personally I find that I prefer the nut butters to regular peanut butter. They give the bars a more interesting taste. Again, up to you. If you’ve got that food processor out already, you can just whiz up some nuts in it, adding a teensy bit of oil if necessary, and make the nut butter that way.
You will combine these in an approximately 1:1:1 ratio, but the exact quantity will depend on how much you want to make, what texture you like, and what else you combine with the mix. What you’re aiming for is a mixture that holds itself together, like a cookie dough, without being overly gooey.
- A food processor
- Wax paper
- A rolling pin (optional)
- A cookie sheet or shallow square or rectangular roasting or cake pan (optional)
Step 1: Whiz the grain in the food processor until it’s a flour. Remove about one-third to half of a cup of it from the food processor and set it aside. I do this instead of leaving it in the food processor because I never know whether I’m going to add too much binding agent later in the process, and end up with something too gooey because I don’t have more flour to dump in. It doesn’t seem to work if you add just whey powder later on, so I save a little of the flour, just in case.
Step 2: Dump in the protein powder and zip that in the processor for a second till the flour and powder are combined.
Step 3: Add the nut butter a little at a time, blending between additions, until the mixture has the texture of cookie dough and holds its shape when pressed together.
Step 4: Either lay out a sheet of wax paper on the counter or on the cookie sheet, or line the roasting pan with it.
Step 5: Dump the mix on the wax paper. You can cover it with another sheet of wax paper and roll or pat it out into the desired thickness, or you can just press it into the roasting pan with your hands. Cover with another sheet of wax paper or saran wrap if it fits better on top of the pan.
Step 6: Put the thing into the freezer. Chill for a few hours.
Step 7: When nicely frozen, remove and cut into bars of desired size. Wrap each bar individually in wax paper. I like to wrap a few then put them into a container or plastic bag which I then put back into the freezer. Keep the bars chilled until just before eating, if possible. You don’t need to be overly fastidious about this (i.e. you could leave one in your bag for an afternoon), but staying cold helps the bars keep their shape, and keeps them from going bad. I keep mine in the freezer then grab one out on my way to work and keep it in the fridge at work. If you want to be able to eat them immediately after retrieving them from the cooler, you may want to just refrigerate them instead of freezing.
OK, now here’s where it gets fun. There are lots of things you can do with the basic recipe to spruce it up a bit.
The first thing I like to do is add mashed fruit to the mix in step 3 to make the texture a little chewier. Adding any kind of fruit puree will give the bars a moister, chewier texture. Bananas are a good option but lots of things will work: apples, cranberries, stonefruit (i.e. peaches, plums, etc.), kiwi, really most fruits you have on hand except for citrus. I’ve also used things like mashed squash, shredded carrot, and yams. Before I do step 1 above, I just whiz up the fruit in the food processor, often using the shredder attachment, to make a puree.
In Step 1, I also often add dry spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Here you can also add nuts or seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower seeds. Just grind them up with the flour. Walnuts and pumpkin seeds will add omega-3s, and Brazil nuts will add selenium (an antioxidant). Shredded coconut adds good fats too.
In Step 3, you can add dried fruit and/or a wee shot of vanilla. Just remember in the second case that you’ll need a little extra flour to compensate for the added liquid.
In Step 5, you can use foil muffin cups instead of wax paper/cake pan and just press the mix into the muffin cups. This will give you a relatively consistently sized “protein cookie” instead and if you leave the “cookie” in the muffin cup, you don’t have to worry so much about it getting squished.
To figure out the nutritional breakdown (i.e. calories, fat, protein, carbs), just total up everything you put in, and divide by the number of bars you made (assuming you made the bars more or less the same size).
Looking for photos of this recipe? Check out EcoJoe’s step-by-step photos here.