Tarahumara Pinole Energy Bars

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Pinol-e-what?!

In the book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall talks about the legendary Tarahumara tribe in Mexico who regularly run 50 miles or more per day. How can they accomplish such a feat? Their diet certainly plays an important role, and a secret magical food called “pinole” is one of their staples. Pinole is so simple: it’s basically toasted cornmeal mixed with natural sugar, spices, and water. It can be eaten as a porridge, or baked into a cake so that you can take it with you while running.

Now… I don’t run 50 miles a day (ha!) but once I started experimenting with this pinole nonsense, I realized why the Tarahumara rely on it so much: it’s the perfect source of energy. When I eat a pinole energy bar before running, I have more endurance, my blood sugar seems to stay more stable, and I recover quicker. These cakes are the most natural and easily digestible source of energy that I’ve ever eaten while working out.

The problem is… there are virtually no good recipes for pinole. The ones online aren’t very tasty or just don’t work well. I have spent a long time coming up with the right ingredients and the right quantities. The recipe I’m about to share with you is so delicious and it holds together well enough to throw in your pocket for the second half of those 50 mile runs. :) I’m confident it’s one of the best pinole recipes you’ll find.

But what about taste? Amazing. But almost impossible to describe. It’s not quite cornbread… not quite a cookie… not quite an energy bar… but a delicious combination of all three. Super magical powers aside, these energy bars have become one of my all-time favorite foods and I eat them almost every day.

Makes 3 energy “cakes”

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup masa harina (cornmeal treated with lime
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons brown rice syrup
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • dash cinnamon

Step One

PinolePrepPreheat the oven to 350ºF.

Then, start toasting the cornmeal and chia seeds. Add both ingredients to a skillet and toast over medium-high heat for 5-8 minutes. This step is essential, but can be tricky: If the heat is too low, the cornmeal won’t toast. If the heat is too high, it will burn. Keep a constant eye on it and stir regularly.

Note: Masa harina is cornmeal treated with lime (the mineral lime, not the fruit). If you cannot find masa harina, feel free to use regular cornmeal – it won’t make a huge difference.

Step Two

PinolePrep2Add all the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until there are no large chunks of dates remaining. If the mixture is too crumbly, add a little more water until you’re left with a thick paste.

You CAN use other sweeteners. I’m sure agave is more “traditional” to the Mexican region, but I’ve tried them all in this recipe and brown rice syrup has no substitute in my opinion. It really helps hold the cakes together and adds just the right amount of sweetness.

Step Three

PinolePrep3Form the mixture into 3 rounds, about 3/8 inch thick and 5 inches in diameter. Bake on a nonstick tray for about 10-12 minutes until the outside forms a solid crust and begins to show small cracks. Remove from the oven and let cool. They can be eaten immediately or saved in the refrigerator for several days.

I like to cut these into half moons and eat half before I go running and the other when I get back. Or, if it’s a long workout, I’ll take the other half (in plastic wrap) with me and eat it along the way. When eating them at home, I highly recommend topping with peanut butter for some extra awesomeness.

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 Tarahumara Pinole Energy Bars

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38 Comments

  1. Loving your website!! It’s making the transition to vegan all that much easier :) can’t wait to try some of these recipes and blog about you!!!

    • Thanks, Brooke!

      “It’s making the transition to vegan all that much easier” – awesome! That’s my goal and I’m so happy it’s helpful for you!

  2. Katrina says:

    Hi – we’ve just tried out your pinhole recipe. Well done! We have tried out various recipes and yours is by far the best. Thank your all your work on this. Greatly appreciated!!

  3. very nice! I added one tablespoon of suma powder for an extra energy kick – I bought it once, but had no idea how to use it up since it’s so freaking bitter. now I know how to get “rid” of it. :)

    • Cool! I’ve never used suma powder, but I feel the same way about maca root powder – it has great health benefits but it’s super bitter.

      • that’s good to know, I’ll try to use suma as a substitute next time I stumble upon a recipe with maca. mine turned out great (other family members loved them too)! I don’t know if pinole bars had anything to do with it, but I achieved my best running result the day I ate them – and I wasn’t even trying! :D

  4. Great recipe! I’ve been looking for something that will fuel me on my next marathon and possible 50K next year. I’ll be experimenting with these over the next few weeks.

    • Thanks, Jay! Good luck with the experimenting, I hope this Pinole works out for you. I’m training for my first marathon this year, but a 50K sounds like a blast!

  5. Shirley Kiernan says:

    Training for a half-marathon and looking forward to trying these. I’ve tried recipes in the past that were too unpleasant to finish. Thanks!

  6. I was looking for a pinole recipe and yours seemed the tastiest. I tried it out today and ended up making 3 batches (the last of which double) for my runner husband who loves these “cookies” and is planning to take some with him on a marathon on Sunday. Thanks a lot!

  7. Mark McGrath says:

    Hi,
    I’ve been looking for a good Pinole recipe. Last long run before Dublin marathon on Saturday and I really want to have something like this in my pocket on the day. Will make them tomorrow to test my reaction. All things going well there will be a fresh batch on the 28th. Many thanks.

  8. these look so good!

  9. I had trouble finding non-gmo masa or cornmeal so I went with the organic quinoa I had on hand. The whole thing worked great and I prefer the nutritional make up of quinoa over corn anyway.

    Thanks for providing a great recipe for me to tweak for myself!

  10. my mother in law is from Mexico and she sent me some pinole on my husbands last visit back home. What should i add to that to make these cakes?

    • That depends on what exactly she gave you… is it cornmeal with lime and spices? I would imagine the pinole you have is some combination of the ingredients listed above and once you know that, it’ll be pretty easy to figure out what else you need to make this recipe. Good luck! :)

      • kansasjay says:

        it is ground toasted sweet corn. nothing else. so would i still have to use the rice syrup? that is my main concern. dont want it too sweet or loaded with calories!

        • Feel free to adjust the syrup to make sure it isn’t too sweet. Or if you don’t want any sweetener at all, that should be fine. The only concern is the consistency as the stickiness does help them hold together.

  11. Is it possible to make this with ordinary corn meal? Corn meal that is not treated with lemon?

  12. Hi Håvard, the short answer is yes. But masa isn’t treated with lime (the citrus fruit) it’s treated with lime (the mineral) and has a slightly different taste that’s typical of Mexican dishes like tortillas. So the taste will be slightly different, but I’ve used cornmeal myself and it works fine!

  13. Heather G says:

    Don’t you need to soak the chia seeds first to access all of its nutritional benefits?

    • Hi Heather! Not that I know of… They definitely form a gel when soaked, but I’ve never seen any research that suggests soaking is necessary to get their nutritional benefits.

      • heather G. says:

        I made a double batch, The dates were sweet enough, didn’t need any other sweetener, And I added 2 Tab of almond flour, a bit more water. These are awesome!!! The combination of cinnamon with the toasted corn and chia is perfect. I keep these cookie crackers on the counter next to the fridge for a quick snack before and after running, and just whenever I need that little pick-me-up, for these do indeed provide yummy energy.

        • Very cool, Heather! I’m actually inspired to try them without the rice syrup as well… with a little extra water and 1-2 more dates, I bet I could get a similar consistency (as you mentioned). Glad you like them! :D

  14. FCAsheville says:

    You might want to read up on some recent information regarding brown rice syrup and arsenic levels. A few tablespoons might not hurt, but many endurance athletes are consuming a lot more than they realize. Just something to be aware of. Just Google ‘brown rice syrup arsenic’.

  15. Paige Martin says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I have intolerance for corn and gluten. Is there a substitute for the corn in this recipe?

    Thank you for all of your work and efforts in this project!! Thanks also for making free to the public. What a wonderful gift!

    Kind regards,

    Paige Martin

    • Hi Paige, you may be able to use a gluten free flour, but this is primarily a corn-based recipe and unfortunately I can’t think of anything that would give the same effect :(

    • Paige Martin says:

      It looks like someone tried quinoa and had good results. I will try and let you know. Thanks! Paige

  16. Just wanted to point why the pinole is more beneficial than regular corn meal (and easier to make your cookies with I would think): From wikipedia: “Maize subjected to the nixtamalization process has several benefits over unprocessed grain for food preparation: it is more easily ground; its nutritional value is increased; flavor and aroma are improved; and mycotoxins are reduced. Lime and ash are highly alkaline: the alkalinity helps the dissolution of hemicellulose, the major glue-like component of the maize cell walls, and loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the corn. Some of the corn oil is broken down into emulsifying agents (monoglycerides and diglycerides), while bonding of the corn proteins to each other is also facilitated. The divalent calcium in lime acts as a cross-linking agent for protein and polysaccharide acidic side chains.[1] As a result, while cornmeal made from untreated ground corn is unable by itself to form a dough on addition of water, the chemical changes in masa allow dough formation.”

    Any chance you tried the recipe with stevia in your experiments? Obviously you would loose the sticky factor from the syrup (have this same problem with my homemade nut and seed bars) but wondering how it might taste.

    Thanks for the recipe, can’t wait to try it!

    • Thanks for this! That’s absolutely right, alkaline substances break down the corn to make its nutrients more absorbable. In fact, Alton Brown had an entire segment of Good Eats dedicated to this subject, complete with a human-sized corn kernel to illustrate :D

  17. Tonya Ward says:

    Hi! First off, thanks for this recipe, these are so YUM! I have to make myself not eat them all in one day, lol! Also thanks for the peanut butter suggestion, that was a great snack after a hard training session, filling and felt like a treat rather than the usual “ugh, I have to eat something”.

    My question – have you ever tried making these in bar form and cutting them to make them a little more portable (not that they’re hard to wrap up as is but little squares or bar shapes would be even easier I think)? Maybe in an 8×8 type pan? Just curious as to whether you (or anyone else) has tried that and if the texture changed or they baked all the way through without burning?

    Thanks again! :)

    • Hi Tonya! Thanks so much for the comments, I’m glad you like these as much as I do :)

      To answer your question, I have not tired it in a pan and I’m suddenly wondering why not! That makes so much sense and I can only assume it’ll work just as well in a pan as the round cakes… but I cannot say for sure (yet). I’ll definitely try it soon though.

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