Trail Mix


Meanwhile, here’s my recipe for “the best trail mix possible,” crossposted from That Other Website™ because I enjoyed writing it (even though I really should’ve spent the time packing instead.)

I made a lot of trail mix during my wife’s pregnancy. We’re talking industrial sized bags of trail mix, on a daily basis, for months on end. I became, if I may say so, a guru of trail mix.

The perfect trail mix requires:

  • a good balance between crunchy (nuts, cereal or grain-based ingredients) and chewy (chocolate, yogurt, dried fruit) ingredients.
  • A good balance between salty and sweet. You want just enough salt to give the sweet elements a bit of zing, but not so much that any individual bite gives a conscious impression of “salty”. Most commercially available nuts are far too heavily salted for proper trail mix; buy unsalted as much as possible.
  • Consistent ingredient size. You need to be able to just reach into the bag and grab a handful without looking, and you don’t want to have to keep stirring. If you sprinkle sunflower seeds in with your macadamia nuts, they’re all just going to filter down to the bottom of the bag, and your carefully constructed balance of ingredients will fall apart. If you’re working with small ingredients like dried peas or sunflower seeds, you’ll need to chop larger chunks of dried fruit down to size. It’s extra work, but this is important stuff we’re talking about here. This is trail mix.
  • Visual interest. You want a good mix of colors and shapes, with no single ingredient predominating. A bag full of peanut M&Ms and breakfast cereal is not trail mix, it’s just a bag of candy.

Know your ingredients! Not all dried fruit are alike — some are so thoroughly impregnated with corn syrup that they’re practically gummy candy; others are so dehydrated that they’ll crumble into powder in the bag. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: there’s a particular brand of dried blueberry that, used judiciously, turns into a lively flavorful coating on everything else.) At one point I routinely kept three different brands of dried mango in the house, for different purposes: one was sugary sweet; one was tough and chewy and needed to be chopped into tiny bits; one was softer but had a sour, almost fishy flavor.

Nuts too: toasted nuts are different from roasted nuts are different from raw. Peanuts are too often used as boring filler material, but if you put them under a broiler for a few minutes their character changes completely. Almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts need to be roasted slowly until they lose their bitterness. Cashews are best raw. For other nuts, it depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve.

Wasabi does not belong in trail mix. Wasabi is for snack mix which is completely different. Snack mix should contain no sweet ingredients: it’s meant to be a combination of bitter and salty and sour flavors, to be consumed with a cold beverage. Trail mix is intended to be eaten unaccompanied. I know that bin of “asian blend” at the store looks tempting, there are some interesting-looking shapes and colors in there, but beware! That road is not a trail!

Other flavors outside the salt/sweet spectrum can be considered as an occasional grace note, however: I’ve had good luck with a lightly cayenne-dusted almond for example, or with a bit of cardamom in a chocolate-based trail mix. Dehydrated vegetables can also make an interesting variation, too, if you can find them: dried green beans work especially well as a sweet note (but note this doesn’t mix well with chocolate.)

There’s no “best trail mix possible,” in other words. Trail mix is all about synchronicity between the ingredients — any trail mix composed of an arbitrary list of individual loves and hates is doomed to failure. Trail mix needs variation from day to day; it needs attention to the character of the ingredients available; it needs balance. Trail mix is an art form.

[Edited to add: Emily has pointed out that I may have given the false impression here that she was the primary trail mix consumer in the household during her pregnancy. What can I say; I like trail mix.]