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What Are Plantains?
Plantains are a seedless berry in the banana family that is starchy rather than sweet, and typically used in cooked preparations.
Although plantains are closely related to sweet bananas—and sometimes even overlap—when it comes to cooking with plantains, they should be treated more like potatoes: boiled, fried, or roasted, not eaten raw.
What Is the Difference Between Plantains and Bananas?
The short answer is plantains are a type of banana that’s starchy, not sweet, and cooked rather than eaten raw.
If you want to get deeper into the plantain-versus-banana question, the first thing to know is that “plantain” and “banana” are culinary terms. Most edible bananas (including plantains) come from two species and their hybrids: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, both wild banana species that contain seeds. Cultivars more closely related to Musa balbisiana tend to be the starchy cooking bananas we call plantains, and cultivars closer to Musa acuminata tend to be sweet dessert varieties of banana. There are exceptions to that rule, but generally speaking:
- Plantains are starchy and have less sugar—only 6% sugar—than sweet bananas (aka dessert bananas), which contain around 20% sugar.
- Plantains are typically larger than bananas.
- Ripe plantains have a dry texture, whereas ripe bananas are smooth and creamy.
- Plantains retain their shape after cooking, whereas bananas tend to become mushy and fall apart when cooked.
Which Is Better: Ripe or Unripe Plantains?
The plantain is a versatile fruit used in both ripe and unripe form in grocery stores. What you’re looking for in a plantain will depend on your recipe.
- Since plantains don’t get that much sweeter once ripe, green and ripe plantains can sometimes be used interchangeably. Keep in mind that the unripe plantains will take longer to cook.
- Like bananas, plantains are picked when green and ripen in storage. Unripe plantains are generally green and hard, while ripe plantains, called maduros in Spanish, are yellow and covered in black spots. It’s best to buy plantains at the stage of ripeness that your plantain recipe requires, but if you need to ripen a green plantain, you can put it in a paper bag and leave it alone for a few days.
- If you’re not ready to use a ripe plantain, it’s fine to refrigerate it for a few days. The peel will turn black, but the flesh inside will remain the same.
4 Different Ways to Cook Plantains
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Plantains are versatile and can be cooked a number of different ways.
- Boil. Boiling is best for plantains that are on the firmer side, since very ripe plantains may become mushy if boiled. Bring salted water to boil in a large pot. Slice the ends off unpeeled plantains, cut in half, and peel. Boil peeled plantains until tender, about 15–30 minutes.
- Roast. Score whole, unpeeled plantains, wrap in foil, and bake in a 400 F degree oven for 40 minutes.
- Grill. The quick, direct heat of a hot grill is ideal for ripe plantains. Slice whole, unpeeled plantains in half lengthwise and grill cut-side-down, 15 minutes. Flip plantains and brush with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar, if desired. Continue to grill until tender, about 15 more minutes.
- Fry. Fried plantains is a popular way to eat the banana in many parts of the world. Smashed and twice-fried ripe plantains, called tostones in Spanish-speaking areas, are eaten in throughout the Caribbean. Unripe plantains can be sliced thinly and fried, like potato chips.
8 Popular Plantain Dishes
Plantains account for one-fifth of worldwide banana production, and are staple carbohydrates in West Africa, Latin America. Below are a number of popular main dishes and side dishes that feature plantains as the star ingredient.
- Tostones. One of the most famous plantain preparations, Caribbean tostones are made of thick slices of either ripe or unripe plantains, which are fried until tender, smashed, and then fried again, until crisp and golden brown. They’re known as bannann peze in Haiti.
- Plantain chips. Thinly sliced ripe or green plantains fried until crispy and seasoned with salt are known as chifles in Peru and Ecuador and tajadas in Colombia, where they’re sometimes sliced a bit thicker.
- Foo-foo. The West African porridge foo-foo (also known as ugali, nsima, posho, and many other names) can be made with yam, sweet potato, cassava, taro, or maize, but in regions where bananas are abundant, it’s made with boiled, pounded plantains.
- Mofongo. Puerto Rican mofongo is made from green plantains that are first fried, then mashed mixed with garlic, salt, and oil to form a ball served with pork skin, meat, vegetables, and broth.
- Rellenitos de plátano. In Guatemala, ripe plantains are boiled, mashed, mixed with sweetened black beans, and fried as a dessert.
- Dodo. Nigerian deep-fried ripe plantain slices are served with pickled onions, jollof rice, or frejon (coconut-milk-and-bean soup).
- Pasteles. The Puerto Rican answer to tamales, pasteles are made with a masa of grated unripe plantains stuffed with pork, flavored with annatto oil, and wrapped in plantain leaves.
- Mangú. A Dominican breakfast dish, mangú features boiled plantains, topped with pickled onions, eggs, fried salami, and fried cheese.
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