The word banana comes from the Arabic “banan,” meaning finger. A fitting moniker given that these long, curved tropical fruits may well be the greatest finger food of all time. They port easily, need no refrigeration, and their thick skin serves as the perfect wrapper. Simply snap the stem, peel, and you have a delicious, nutritious treat. Each year the world consumes more than 100 billion bananas, making them the most popular of all fruits.
Like money, bananas don’t grow on trees. They are actually the botanical berries of the largest known herb, musa sapientum. Believed to have originated in Southeast Asia, it is a perennial and knows no season. If given plenty of sun and frost-free conditions, fruit can be harvested year round. India is the world’s largest producer, with about 25 metric tons grown annually, but Latin America accounts for 80% of the export market.
One of the few fruits that develop better flavor after being picked, bananas are harvested while firm and green and are transported over great distances, during which time refrigeration slows ripening. Just before going to market, a short stint in an ethylene gas chamber brings out their brilliant yellow coloring, but most of their sweetness develops afterwards as their starches break down into sugars.
Over a thousand varieties of bananas are grown today. The vast majority of these are sweet or “dessert” bananas, which have a creamy flesh and are commonly eaten out of hand or used in muffins, puddings and pies. Starchier, drier varieties, called plantains, are treated as vegetables and used in cooking.
A supermarket favorite, the Cavendish is the most common banana sold throughout Europe and North American. Approximately 6-10 inches in length (15-25 cm), it has a thick skin and a smooth, consistently sweet flesh. It reaches peak flavor when the skin is yellow with small brown flecks. Some consider it to be bland in comparison to other varieties. It’s existence has been threatened in recent years by a fungus called Fusarium wilt. Evidence suggests it’s just a matter of time before the Cavendish is extinct. In the 1950’s, it replaced the Gros Michel, the market leader of its time, which suffered the same fate.
Smaller and chunkier than a Cavendish, the Marzano banana is slightly sweeter with hints of strawberry and apple. The skin turns completely black when ripe.
Also called “baby bananas”, the Niños are finger size—about 3 inches in length (7.6 cm)—and a delight for children. Delicious out of hand, they are slightly sweeter than the Cavendish and can be used in all the same preparations.
The plantain has a starchy dry flesh that is sometimes pink in color. The taste is mild and less sweet, but when fully ripened, they be used for desserts. The skin is thick and ranges in color from green to yellow to black. Perfect for more savory uses, they are often sliced and fried in oil.
Red bananas have a reddish purple skin and a light orange flesh that is sweeter than the Cavendish but firmer in texture. Like the Manzanos, they are short and plump, about 4-6 inches long (10-15 cm). When fully ripened, the flesh becomes quite soft making it good choice for baking.
Buying & Storing Bananas
Selecting a ripe bananas is a tricky proposition. What constitutes “ripe” is a matter of taste—especially when eaten out of hand. Some people prefer a firmer, less sweet bananas with a hint of green throughout, while others like the sweet softened flesh that only comes once the peel browns significantly.
Ripening occurs exponentially. The shelf life shortens as soon as flecking begins. For this reason, most supermarkets stock bananas that are too green and must ripen at home for a period of time. When purchasing, first determine how quickly they will be consumed. If they are to be eaten right away, look for bananas that are plump and yellow with little to no green at the ends and consume them within a day or two. Otherwise, select several bananas at various stages of ripening. This may mean splitting up bunches (aka “hands”), but it will prevent them from peaking all at once.
Plantains, on the other hand, are far less fussy. They are slower to ripen and will remain firm even when the peel is black. So select plump plantains at any stage of ripening based on how soon they will be prepared.
Avoid bananas and plantains that are mushy or have damaged or moldy peels. Don’t purchase bananas that are too a deep green, as they will not fully ripen.
Store bananas and plantains at a cool room temperature for 2-5 days. To speed up ripening, place them in a paper bag poked with a few holes. The ethylene gas they naturally produce will hasten the process. Conversely, ripening can be slowed a bit by storing them in the refrigerator. The peels will darken rapidly, but the flesh will be slower to soften.
Bananas can also be frozen and used later in smoothies or for baking. Peel and cut them into 2-3 inch (5-8 cm) pieces. Spread the pieces onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Fill a small food-safe spray bottle with ½ cup of water and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Lightly spray the bananas with the juice mixture to prevent browning. Place the sheet pan in the freezer for 2-3 hours. Transfer the frozen banana pieces into a freezer bag marked with the date, seal and freeze for up to 3 months.
Preparing & Cooking Bananas
Nothing beats a fresh banana eaten out of hand, but there are a myriad of ways to enjoy them that required little or no preparation. Sliced on top of cereal is a breakfast mainstay, but they’re just as delicious with yogurt, honey and almonds. They add sweetness and substance to a fruit smoothie. You can add mashed bananas to pancake batter, or make banana fritters. There is no easier dessert than bananas dipped in melted chocolate, but for something a little fancier, cook sliced bananas in butter with some brown sugar and cinnamon. Add a little rum, and you have bananas foster, a New Orleans original.
For best presentation, peel and cut just before using to avoid discoloring. Be sure to remove the nub end and any mushy areas. And what of those stringy remnants knowns as phloem (pronounce flom)? They’re completely edible but a little unsightly and tedious to remove. Peel bananas from the bottom up to eliminate them completely.
For the best tasting banana muffins or quick bread only use overly ripe, brown bananas. They are sweeter and greater depth of flavor.
Among the banana’s strongest affinities are chocolate, caramel (butter and sugar), ice cream, and rum. Many tropical fruits also pair nicely, including mangoes, papaya, pineapple, and, in particular, coconut. Walnuts are commonly paired with them, but almonds and macadamia nuts work well too. Warming spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and even black pepper are all tempered by the banana’s cooling sweetness.
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