Introduction: Backpacking Food Bars 3.3

About: After spending 2 years traveling my wife and I have lived in 8 different cities across the United States. Among other things we've had the privileged of visiting nearly half of the national parks in the US. …

My wife and I have had the privilege of living in Seattle for the past 3 months, and with almost 200 miles of weekend backpacking trips under our belts I’ve had plenty of time to work on improving my backpacking food bars.  I think the current results are much better than the original and 2.0 versions.

As with the previous versions of the bars, my goals are:
1. High in calories, carbohydrates, and protein
2. Shelf stable for at least a week under high temperature and humidity
3. Sufficiently palatable to be eaten multiple times a day for many days in a row
4. Easily and cheaply made from readily available ingredients
5. The Holy Grail: something that even my ever-skeptical wife would be willing to eat.

My apologies up front for the poor lighting in some of the pictures.  The lighting in my kitchen is pretty bad, which is made all the more embarrassing by the fact that I now work for a lighting company.

Step 1: Tools and Ingredients

• Mixing bowl
• Measuring cup
• Measuring spoons (if creating one of the flavor variants)
• Rubber spatula
• Food processor (or knife and cutting board)
• Jellyroll pan
• Aluminum foil
• Oven (preheated to 250F)
• Plastic wrap

• Sweetened condensed milk (2 cups)
• Nut butter of your choice (2 cups)
• Whey protein concentrate (1 cup)
• Glutinous rice flour (1 cup)
• Nuts (1 cup, chopped)
• Dried fruit  (1 cup, chopped)

Step 2: Prep and Mix Ingredients

As with the 2.0 recipe, use a food processor or a knife and cutting board to reduce dried fruit and nuts to desired size.  Combine all ingredients in the mixing bowl and mix thoroughly.  The dough should have a crumbly/sticky clay-like consistency, but will vary depending on the consistency of the nut butter you chose to use.

Now it’s time for a new step that helps the bars’ consistency significantly: knead the dough with your hands for 3-5 minutes.  The dough should stiffen quite a bit and will seem to shrink.  It will also leak oil from the nut butter, so try and do the kneading on a plate to make cleanup easier.  And if you’re really serious about getting all of those calories, collect that oil and drizzle it on the bars just before putting them in the oven.

Step 3: Baking

If you haven’t done so already, preheat your oven to 250F.  While the oven is preheating, line your jellyroll pan with foil (my deepest gratitude to everyone who suggested this in the 2.0 recipe’s comments).  Using your hands, press the dough into the pan up to the lip of the pan, and squaring off the end of the dough if it doesn’t quite fill the pan. 

Alternatively, if you happen to have a musubi press handy (which I do), or if you can improvise something else, you can press half-cup measurements of dough into perfectly formed bars.  I found that this method produces a bar that is much less crumbly than what you get with the hand-pressed method.

Put the bars in the oven for 30-60 minutes depending on how stiff the nut butter was that you used, and how stiff you want the end product to be. 

Technically you don’t have to bake the dough at all, it’s completely shelf stable as-is, but baking reduces weight slightly and, in my opinion, improves the flavor significantly.  Using normal peanut butter and the hand-pressed method I found that 30 minutes gave a pleasantly soft bar but after 60 minutes it’s a bit too crumbly.  However, baking a mechanically pressed bar for 60 minutes produced the most palatable and transportable results.

Step 4: Packaging

Remove the bars from the oven and if using the hand-packed method cut the bars into the desired serving sizes while they are still warm.  Once the bars are cut, allow them to cool completely before proceeding.

Once the bars have cooled, wrap each one in plastic wrap, put the wrapped bars in a gallon ziplock bag, put the ziplock bag in your favorite backpack, and hit the trail.

Step 5: Flavor Variants

Eating the same thing day after day gets monotonous.  Thankfully this recipe is incredibly customizable.  For this instructable I actually divided the batch of dough into four parts and made each a different flavor.  I scaled the seasoning amounts up for a full recipe and I’ll share those recipes with you here:

Follow the directions using your favorite nut butter and dried fruit (I used peanut butter and dried cranberries).  The end result has a pleasant, mild, sweet, nutty flavor that earned a “not bad” from my wife.

Apple Pie
Use dried apples as your fruit and mix in the following:
cinnamon: 2tsp
allspice: .25tsp
cloves: .25tsp
nutmeg: dash
ginger: dash
This version was described by friends who joined us on one of our trips as tasting like a desert at a high-end restaurant.

Use Nutella as the nut butter, and replace the fruit with chocolate chips

It was asked in the discussion on the 2.0 recipe if a savory version could be made.  I gave it my best but the results are pretty mediocre.  Here’s what I tried:
wasabi: 2tsp
garlic powder: 4tsp
onion flakes: .5c
dried chives: .5c
sweet soy sauce: 8tsp
cayenne pepper: 2tsp
salt: 1tsp
You could help yourself out a lot by using unsweetened nut butter, but the real problem is the difficulty of combating 2 CUPS of SWEETENED condensed milk.  I think the best thing to do is work with the sweetness and go for a sweet and sour, pad Thai, or barbeque flavor.  Just remember to ALWAYS use shelf-stable ingredients.

Step 6: Breakfast Variant:

It occurred to me that even if these bars get stale, as long as they don’t mold they’re still good.  So how do you eat a stale food bar?  Turn it into a hot breakfast cereal. 

Take 2 half-cup bars, crumble them into a bowl or pan, pour about a quarter of a cup of boiling water over the bars, and mix thoroughly.  You may have to heat the resulting porridge a bit if you like a really warm breakfast.

Step 7: Meeting My Goals

Food Value:
I ate these food bars as part of two meals and two snacks every day while hiking 14 mile days with a 30lb pack and didn’t lose a pound of body mass.  They are also plenty filling and energizing.  Here are the actual numbers for a single half cup bar using peanut butter, dried apples, and walnuts:
calories 435.0
carbs 42.5g
protein 15.5g
fat 23.8g
Sa 0.21g
P 0.33g
Ca 14.3%
Fe 6.0%
A 2.0%
C 0.5%
E 10.0%
niacin 20.0%
riboflavin 10.0%

Shelf Life:
The current recipe, baked or unbaked, is completely shelf stable.  I left bars on my counter, with and without plastic wrap, for two weeks with no sign of mold or significant drying.  I’m confident these bars will last in your pack for as long as you could realistically want to carry them.  As you customize your own bars just remember that water, or any ingredients that contain water, are the kiss of death for shelf life. 

These are the best tasting version of the bars yet and could easily pass as some kind of desert.  The biggest improvement was replacing the Wal-Mart protein powder with whey protein concentrate.  Tragically it reduced the overall protein content, but it also got rid of the nasty artificial sweetener taste, which I consider a net gain.  When we went hiking with our friends they kept trying to nab my extra bars so they must have thought it was pretty good too.  Still, having only one flavor gets monotonous.  Towards the end of my trips I found myself avoiding the bars if something else was available.  I recommend splitting up the dough and making several flavors to take on your trip.  And if someone comes up with a viable savory variant, preferably one that tastes like kielbasa, I want to hear about it.

Sourcing and Cost:
If you’re using peanut butter, dried apples, and walnuts, the overall cost is $0.66 per half cup bar.  Obviously this is substantially cheaper than any other backpacking food bar you’ll find readymade at the grocery or camping store.

The only ingredient that might be a challenge to acquire is the glutinous rice flour.  Check your local Asian grocery.  If there’s even a modest Asian population in your area you should be able to find it.

The Wife Test:
As mentioned previously, my wife gave these a “not bad,” which is probably the best reaction I’m likely to pry out of her.

Step 8: Caveats

Let me say up front that glutinous rice flour DOES NOT CONTAIN GLUTEN.  Here “glutinous” is being used as an adjective, not an ingredient.  Trust me, I have a friend with severe celiac disease and I managed to feed him at my house for ten days without killing him.

Beyond that, the obvious allergens are nuts and milk.  If you’re only allergic to some nuts you should be able to find a nut butter that will work for you, but if you’re allergic to all nuts, or to milk, I’m afraid you’ll have to look for a different food bar.

Complete Nutrition:
While this recipe is high in its target nutrients (calories, carbs, and protein) it is lacking in other areas that would be critical on an extended backpacking trip.  In the comments on the 2.0 recipe there was a robust discussion of potential ingredients to make these almost a complete meal, but I chose to pare down the ingredients to focus on this primarily as an energy bar.  Subsequently, these bars are low in dietary fiber and most trace nutrients.  Keep this in mind while planning your meals.

Step 9: Gilliana’s Recipe:

In the comments on the 2.0 recipe many people chimed in about their own adjustments to the recipe.  User gilliana even went so far as to offer a complete recipe with instructions.  I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I thought her effort and thoroughness deserved some recognition.

gilliana says:
I thought this was a lovely idea, so I thought I'd try, too. I am gluten-intolerant, so here's my gluten-free version. It lasted on in a Tupperware container on the counter for 3 weeks just fine and probably would have lasted longer, except people (including me) kept sneaking just a little bit. I used banana for the fruit base, pecans, cashews, and sunflower seeds for the nuts, and raisins, dried blueberries, and dried cherries for the fruit.

This recipe doesn’t use eggs, so it is allowed to lick the bowl. The combination of grain and chickpea gives a complete protein.

• ¼ cup amaranth flour
• ¼ cup chickpea flour
• 1 tsp cinnamon
• ½ tsp guar gum
• ½ tsp calcium carbonate (=600 mg calcium) - optional
• ¼ tsp sea salt
• ½ cup sunflower seeds or chopped pecans, cashews, and/or other nuts/seeds
• ½ cup dried fruit of choice, chopped if needed to the size of raisins or a bit smaller
• 1 mashed banana or ¼ cup apple sauce
• ¼ cup honey
• 1 tsp vanilla
• ¼ cup chia seeds or flaxseeds
• ½ cup peanut butter

c Preheat oven to 325oF. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 9 inch baking pan.
c In a large bowl, whisk together the amaranth flour, chickpea flour, cinnamon, guar gum, calcium, and salt. If at all lumpy, run the flour through a sieve.
c Chop any nuts, seeds, or dried fruit that needs chopping. Add to the flour mix and stir well.
c Mash the banana in a medium-sized, falt-bottomed bowl. Add the honey and vanilla and stir well. Add the chia seeds and beat with an electric beater.
c If the peanut butter is cold, put it in a small glass or ceramic bowl and heat it for about 30 seconds in the microwave until it is soft. Add to the banana mix and cream or beat together.
c Add the peanut butter mix to the flour-fruit-and-nut mix and stir until combined.
c Spoon the dough evenly into the baking pan. Use the bowl of a spoon to swirl and pat in delicate circles until the dough is spread out evenly and about 1” thick. A spatula helps to get all the dough out of the bowl and off the spoon.
c Bake for about 45 minutes, until the surface of the bars is lightly browned, the bars have separated slightly from the sides of the pan, and a probe inserted into the middle comes out dry. Put the probe in at an angle so you don’t scratch your baking pan.
c Let cool completely before turning the baked dough out onto a cutting board and cutting into 16 bars.