What makes banana bread so flavorful? Is it the touch of vanilla? A hint of cinnamon? Just the right balance of salt and sweet?
All of the above. But the most critical flavor in banana bread, the one that’ll make or break your loaf, is (no surprise) — banana. So if you want to make out-of-this-world banana bread, it’s important that you use the “right” bananas.
You’re standing in the produce section at your grocery store, looking at the bananas. There’re big ones and little ones. Organic bananas, and cute little bunches of mini-bananas.
Which do you choose?
It’s simple: the ripest ones.
Search out overripe bananas
Look beyond the “perfect” bananas, and see if you can find a rolling cart with reduced-price produce: bruised apples, soft lemons, wilted lettuce — and “overripe” bananas. A banana that’s way too squishy and soft for your cereal is just perfect for banana bread: the blacker the banana, the sweeter and more assertive its flavor.
If you can’t find overripe bananas, you’ll need to create your own. Buy some bananas — which in most supermarkets are typically yellowish-green, or yellow tinged with green at the stem end.
Let the bananas ripen (and overripen) at room temperature. Depending on the weather, this could take a few days, or up to a week.
The best bananas for banana bread aren't yellow; they're black. Or they're at least streaked with black/brown, with just the barest hint of green at the stem. And again, the darker the better: there’s no such thing as a too-ripe banana when you’re making banana bread.
Obviously, this is a pain if you don’t tend to plan your baking projects well ahead, and you want to make banana bread immediately. If you’re a spur-of-the-moment baker, it pays to keep a stash of ripe bananas on hand at all times — in your freezer.
Build a stash of frozen overripe bananas
How does that work? Very well! Every time you see a banana in the fruit bowl teetering between just right and Fruit Fly Central, stick it in the freezer. I have a zip-top plastic bag full-time in my freezer for just this purpose.
Frozen bananas turn dark brown or black; that’s perfectly OK. When you’re ready to bake, take out the bananas you need and let them thaw at room temperature. Or thaw them in the microwave (skin and all); my microwave takes about 3 minutes to thaw four medium bananas.
Thawed bananas are very soft and watery; again, no worries. Simply slit their peels lengthwise and squeeze the squishy dark bananas into your mixing bowl (if you bake by weight) or measuring cup. They’ll be very soft and easy to mash. Do include any liquid.
You can also simply slice off the tip and squeeze the soft banana into your bowl or cup like you're squeezing a tube of toothpaste.
Caveat emptor: You may have seen tips online for roasting under-ripe bananas in their skin for 30 minutes in a 350°F oven. This is supposed to concentrate their flavor and make them sweet. I tried it; they were indeed deep black, but they tasted like green bananas, only mushy. Don't go there.
Finally, what if you just have to make banana bread right now — your best friend is dropping by and you promised her… but you don’t have any overripe bananas on hand?
Use whatever bananas you can get. Increase the sugar in the recipe by about 15% (generally 2 to 3 tablespoons) to help with the missing sweetness; and increase the salt by about 25% to help with flavor intensity.
Now this doesn't apply to the completely green bananas you'll sometimes see at the supermarket. So if that's all you can find, just make pumpkin bread and call it a day!
Have you made our Whole-Grain Banana Bread yet? It's our 2018 Recipe of the Year, for many reasons — not the least its shower of crunchy cinnamon-sugar on top. I think I must have made this bread 40 to 50 times in the last six months, and it's a runaway hit everywhere I share it. What are you waiting for? Go buy some bananas!