In the United States, the dessert banana dominates supermarket shelves, but in the Caribbean Basin and Latin America, its starchier botanical cousin, the plantain, proliferates. The fruit is so integral to the cuisines of these areas, “we think of it as ours,” noted the Cuban-born chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla, author of the award-winning exploration of Latin cooking Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America (2012).
In truth, the plantain is an import that originated in Asia; traveled to Africa; and then made its way to the Americas in the 1500s, where enslaved Africans helped spread it across the region. The reasons the fruit took hold are simple: The plantain not only grows readily in tropical climates but also has the rare quality of being edible at all stages of ripeness. And culinarily, its transformation from dense and starchy to plush and sweet offers unlimited possibility. This cooking banana can be used at discrete points in its ripening cycle or combined at different stages for a specific effect—to blend a firmer texture with a creamier one, say, or a nuttier taste with a fruitier one. “The sky's the limit,” said Presilla.
Color is one way to determine ripeness, but assessing texture is also important, because overly cool temperatures can cause darkening but slow ripening.
Intensely green. Mildly nutty with no hint of sweetness. Should feel firm and full in their skins.
Yellowy green, with a few dark spots. Faintly sweet. Should yield slightly to the touch.
Heavily to entirely blackened. Fruity and sweet. Should be soft like a fully ripe avocado.
Storing and ripening plantains
Stored at cool room temperature, green plantains won’t change color for at least a week. They become half-ripe after several more days and ripe to very ripe a week or so later. To accelerate ripening, place the plantains in a paper bag.
Plantain skins are tougher than those of other bananas, and they can be hard to remove, even after their outer layer has thinned with ripening. This method can help.
1. Cut off both ends of plantain. With tip of paring knife, make 1 cut lengthwise through skin, taking care not to cut through to fruit.
2. Pull away skin from side versus lengthwise. If plantain is green, you may need to use a spoon to help lift skin from fruit.