My Goals

  • Moist, tender loaf

  • Genuine, intense banana flavor

  • Attractive presentation

Without upsetting the humble charms of this bread, what would it take to create a moist, tender loaf that really tasted like bananas?

The tradition of banana bread–baking is more heavily steeped in parsimony than indulgence: When bananas get covered with brownish-black spots, the frugal alternative to pitching them in the trash has always been to mash them up, add them to a quick bread batter, and bake.

I’m all for thrift in the kitchen, but I’ve yet to come across a banana bread recipe that actually makes me glad I saved those overripe specimens. Depending on the fat-to-flour ratio—and just how spotty those bananas really were—the crumb varies from cottony and tough to dense and damp, with a typically overbaked ring crusting over the exterior. Even more discouraging, all that ripe banana flavor somehow seems to vaporize during baking, leaving me with a ho-hum loaf that just begs for the added oomph of chocolate chips, coconut, rum, or gobs of cream cheese slathered on top. Without upsetting the humble charms of this bread, what would it take to create a moist, tender loaf that really tasted like bananas?

Concentration Consternation

Just to reacquaint myself with the core problems, I cherry-picked a few promising-looking recipes to make in the test kitchen, most of which followed a formula along these lines: Combine mashed, ripe bananas with vegetable oil, eggs, and sugar; fold that into a dry mix of flour, baking soda, and salt; and scrape the batter into a loaf pan before popping it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I suppose the breads were passable as PTA-meeting handouts—sweet-smelling and pleasant enough to eat while warm and fresh—but their banana flavor was utterly forgettable.

Except for one loaf, that is. With a stature that was a good half-inch shorter than the other breads and an interior crumb that could only be described as wet, it wasn’t much to look at. (One taster actually used the word “sludgy.”) But it took only a couple of bites before my colleagues and I were returning for seconds, declaring that this loaf had unprecedented true fruit flavor. Why the drastic difference? Simple: This recipe called for roughly the same amount of flour, sugar, fat, and eggs as all the others, but twice the number of bananas—six instead of the usual three. Their effect was both a blessing and a curse: Doubling the bananas may have doubled the flavor, but it also oversaturated the batter. My task was clear—figure out how to cram as many bananas as possible into the loaf without sinking its cakelike structure.

Since it was clear that simply mashing up more bananas to add to the batter compromised the crumb, I decided to limit myself to three pieces and try alternative avenues to ratcheting up the flavor. A few of the more inventive recipes I came across stirred crushed banana chips into the batter; presumably, the chips’ toasty, concentrated flavor would pick up where the fresh fruit left off. Wrong. The loaf I made with 1⁄2 cup of ground chips had no more flavor than previous batches; in fact, it was even a bit drier. Turns out, banana chips are made from underripe bananas (because they withstand processing better than ripe fruit), and underripe bananas are largely composed of moisture-absorbing starch. Scratch that off the list.

If banana chips were too dehydrated, maybe the answer to bigger banana flavor was to start at the source—actual ripe bananas—and drain their liquid myself. That way, I’d get all the benefits of the fruit’s creamy sweetness and be able to control the moisture level. Flipping through the test kitchen archives for ideas, I came across a recipe for low-fat banana bread, where we discovered that roasting the fruit not only helped some of the excess moisture evaporate, but also concentrated its rich brown-sugar notes. My goal was to remove enough moisture so that two more bananas (for a total of five) wouldn’t overwhelm the batter. Unsure how much moisture would escape through the skin, I roasted batches of bananas three different ways—peels intact, peels split, and peels removed—and then incorporated them into the batter. No matter what the roasting method, five bananas still produced an unacceptably wet loaf, so I scaled back to four bananas. This time around, the split-peel loaf stood out for a nice, moist (but not puddinglike) crumb and a fruity flavor that was a significant step up from any three-banana loaf I’d made. But roasting tacked 45 minutes onto the recipe. And were four bananas really as high as I could go?

Do the Ripe Thing

Don’t even think of making banana bread with anything less than very ripe, heavily speckled fruit—unless you’re fine with a bland loaf. As bananas ripen, their starch converts to sugar at an exponential rate. In lab tests, we found heavily speckled bananas had nearly three times the amount of fructose (the sweetest of the sugars in fruit) than less spotty bananas. (The exact percentage will vary from fruit to fruit.) But the impact of ripeness only goes so far: We found little difference in sweetness between loaves baked with completely black bananas and those made with heavily speckled ones.

Liquid Asset

My patience with this process was growing thin. Then a thrifty colleague mentioned that in lieu of throwing out bananas too ripe to eat, she saves them in the freezer, though she has seen them exude quite a lot of liquid when thawed. Armed with this promising nugget, I thawed some very ripe bananas I had stored in the freezer; sure enough, five of them yielded around 2/3 cup of liquid. I pureed the fruit, added it to my bread, and was rewarded with a flavor-packed loaf boasting a moist, fully baked crumb. My enthusiasm was renewed—until I realized this discovery would be moot if I had no frozen ripe bananas at the ready.

I had no choice but to return to trying to cook off extra moisture. This time around, I moved my efforts out of the oven and onto the stove: I tried simmering the mashed bananas as well as dicing and sautéing them—but the direct heat in both attempts gave the fruit an overcooked, jamlike flavor. I was stumped until I remembered a solution for removing moisture from waterlogged eggplant: microwaving it. I placed five bananas in a glass bowl and zapped them on high power for about 5 minutes, then transferred the now- pulpy fruit to a sieve to drain. Bingo! This caused them to release as much liquid as the thawed frozen bananas. Furthermore, since the bananas were heated for only a short time, they didn’t take on the overly cooked flavor of the simmered puree or sautéed bananas.

As crazy as it sounded to extract banana liquid only to put it back (albeit in concentrated form), the result was a revelation.

But what to do about the banana liquid I’d collected? I couldn’t bear the thought of pouring all that sweet flavor down the drain. (In cooking terms, it seemed as blasphemous as throwing away the fond.) I transferred this liquid to a saucepan, cooked it down to 2 ounces, and then added it back to the mashed bananas (along with another 1⁄4 cup of flour to compensate for the extra liquid). As crazy as it sounded to extract banana liquid only to put it back (albeit in concentrated form), the result was a revelation. Not only did this step infuse the bread with ripe, intensely fruity banana flavor, it also assuaged my frugal Yankee conscience. Furthermore, the extra moisture in the batter helped to create a crumb that was tender through and through, without being framed by overly crusty sides.

The Sixth Sense

With the flavor problem solved, a few minor tweaks completed the recipe: I exchanged the granulated sugar for light brown sugar, finding that the latter’s molasses notes better complemented the bananas. A teaspoon of vanilla rounded out the bananas’ faintly boozy, rumlike flavor, as did swapping out the oil for the nutty richness of butter. I also added 1⁄2 cup of toasted walnuts to the batter, finding that their crunch provided a pleasing contrast to the rich, moist crumb.

This banana bread was a true showpiece, from its deep golden crust all the way through to the center’s velvety crumb, yet lingering in the back of my mind was the urge to actually double the number of bananas in the conventional recipe. Wondering if the crust might benefit from a little embellishment, I sliced a sixth banana and shingled it on top of the batter. A final sprinkle of sugar helped the buttery slices caramelize and gave the loaf an enticingly crisp, crunchy top. In fact, I started craving thick slices of this bread so often, I now make a point of always having a bunch of ripe bananas waiting in the wings.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, tender loaf

    “Juicing” the bananas in the microwave removes extra moisture and prevents a soggy loaf. A light hand when mixing—the dry ingredients are folded in gently so a few flour streaks remain—ensures a tender crumb.
  • Genuine, intense banana flavor

    We squeeze more bananas into the bread itself—five, in fact. Plus, we reduce the extracted liquid on the stovetop and then stir this superconcentrated banana juice into the batter to deliver potent banana flavor.
  • Attractive presentation

    We shingle a sliced banana over the top of the loaf, placing the slices along the sides of the pan for an even rise. The entire loaf is sprinkled with granulated sugar so the top crust will bake into a caramelized crown for the ultimate banana bread.