This crunchy nut and seed cluster recipe is a salad topping you’ll want to munch.

This crunchy nut and seed cluster recipe is a salad topping you’ll want to munch.

But not all salads are created equal.

To me, what separates a good salad from a great one is when every bite offers a little bit of everything. Something fresh, something juicy, something bright and acidic, something creamy and something crunchy. When every forkful makes you want to have another one. And often, it’s the crunch that makes a salad irresistible.

So, what combination of ingredients would create the salad crunch of my dreams?

I set out with a vague idea of where I wanted to end up — crunchy, of course, but also savory and rich with umami. I tested a few recipes found in cookbooks and online, and didn’t love any of them.

My first instinct was to make a savory granola, which was … nice, but I realized that I was looking for a nuttier, seedier — dare I say it — crunchier result.

Casting oats aside, I turned my attention to various seeds, nuts and grains, playing around with proportions and required preparation. While I liked walnuts and pecans, I didn’t love their stronger, earthier notes. And hazelnuts worked fine, but I wanted to avoid excessive chopping. In the end, sliced or slivered almonds or pistachios had just the right size, flavor and texture I was after.

For that umami, I initially leaned in the direction of soy sauce. I desired a savoriness that was deep but not overpowering. I envisioned that it should be at home in a salad or grain bowl, but also as a quick snack.

In short, I wanted it to be all things to all people — easier said than done.

While I love the umami notes of soy sauce, the flavor was dominating, distracting from the salad itself, like that annoying kid in grade school who always had their hand up with an answer. The same thing happened using fish sauce.

Flummoxed, I was staring at my pantry door lined with sauces and vinegars when I spotted a bottle of coconut aminos. That did the trick. I ended up using a trinity of flavor powerhouses that, when combined, gave me exactly what I was looking for: coconut aminos, nutritional yeast and maple syrup (you could instead use honey, but then the crunch won’t be vegan).

A couple more tests got all of the elements to the right proportions — for something so seemingly elementary, it was surprisingly tricky to nail down, and I was enormously proud of the result.

While testing, I accidentally stumbled upon something exhilarating — well, for a food writer anyway. I discovered that by skipping oil, the resulting crunch, once cooled from the oven, solidified to a solid block of nuts and seeds. I’m sure that the chia seeds in the mixture, when slightly moistened by the aminos and maple syrup, helped with “gluing” the clusters together. This allows you to either crumble it into tiny bits or break it in big or small clusters.

I tried these clusters with various salads. I showered it on bowls of soup. I topped my scrambled eggs with it. I sprinkled it over grain bowls. And, as if that weren’t enough, I also couldn’t stop snacking on it.

Which is what you want, right? An irresistible, easy-to-make component that can play many parts.

Not only is your salad more exciting, textured and delicious with these crunchy clusters, but also these “crunchies” as we started calling them at my house, transforms the salad into something you should be eating into something you actually crave.

Storage: Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

  • 1/2 cup raw unsalted sliced or slivered almonds (may substitute with a nut of your choice)
  • 1/2 cup raw unsalted pepitas
  • 1/4 cup raw unsalted sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup raw sesame seeds (may substitute with flax seeds)
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds (may substitute with hemp seeds)
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons coconut aminos
  • 2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line a small, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, toss together the almonds, pepitas, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds and nutritional yeast until combined. Add the coconut aminos, maple syrup or honey, salt and cayenne, if using, and thoroughly mix to combine.

Spread the mixture evenly on the baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the nuts smell toasty, the mixture is crunchy and the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours and up to 1 day — the longer the better. As the mixture cools, it will develop flavor and crunch. Transfer to a lidded container.

Per serving (1/4 cup), based on 14 and using maple syrup

Calories: 103; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 92 mg; Carbohydrates: 5 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 4 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From assistant recipes editor Olga Massov.