A plantain to the untrained eye could easily be mistaken for a banana. In fact, it belongs to Musaceae, the banana family of plants, and it's closely related to the common banana. Believed to be native to Southeast Asia, plantains are grown in tropical regions around the world and in a variety of cuisines. Unripe plantains are green to yellow, difficult to peel, and the fruit is hard with a starchy flavor—this is the perfect stage for boiling and frying them. When fully ripe, plantains are black, with a flavor that some people describe as similar to a banana but not as sweet. Most people prefer them cooked even at this stage.
What Are Plantains?
Plantains (plátanos in Spanish) look like large bananas. They are technically fruits, but much like the tomato and unlike the banana, they are eaten and cooked as if they were a vegetable. Harder to peel (especially when green) than bananas, plantains cannot be eaten raw. They must be cooked and are an important part of Central and South American, Caribbean, African, and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Plantains are very versatile and typically inexpensive. They are always ready for cooking no matter what stage of ripeness—green, yellow, or black—and used in a variety of dishes, from appetizers to desserts. They just need to be peeled when raw.
How to Cook With Plantains
Most often, the first step to cooking plantains is to peel the fruit, which can be tricky. Ripe plantains peel as easily as a banana. However, in order to peel green plantains, you will need to slice off both ends and then cut a slit in the peel from tip to tip. Remove the peel under cold running water to avoid staining your hands and then peel sideways in one piece. Afterward, place the peeled fruit in salted water to keep it from discoloring before cooking.
Think of cooking plantains as you would potatoes. Peeled plantains may be baked, boiled, fried, grilled, or steamed. When fully ripened, you can also bake plantains in their skins at 375 F for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve them seasoned with salt, pepper, and a pat of butter.
What Does It Taste Like?
When green, plantains are bland and starchy, much like a yuca root or potato. Medium ripe plantains are yellow or yellow dappled with black, and they are slightly sweet. When the skins have turned almost black, the plantains are fully ripe, aromatic, and sweet.
When plantains are still green, try preparing tostones or plantain chips seasoned with salt and pepper. They go well as a side dish with rice and beans. You'll also find that plantains are a key ingredient in a variety of popular recipes throughout the world, most famously from the Caribbean.
Where to Buy Plantains
Fresh plantains are widely available, including throughout the U.S. They can usually be found in the produce section of your local supermarket. Sold by the pound in bunches, you will pay a little more for plantains than bananas. Also like bananas, the tropical fruit does not have a strict season, so they're available year-round. (Note: Many stores sell frozen varieties of baked and fried plantains too.)
At the store, look for firm plantains. Choose them according to your desired ripeness and when you'll be cooking them. Avoid shriveled, squishy, or moldy fruit.
You can ripen green plantains by storing them at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. Turn them daily. It will take seven to 10 days for green plantains to fully ripen. If you aren’t ready to use them when they’ve reached the desired stage of ripeness, you can peel and freeze them for up to three months.
Nutrition and Benefits
Plantains are good for you as they're low in fat and sodium with no cholesterol. They're also high in carbohydrates and a great source of potassium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamin C. A half-cup serving of cooked plantains has about 80 calories.
Plantains vs. Bananas
Both plantains and bananas start out with green skin that turns yellow, then dark brown to black as they ripen. They also grow in bunches (called hands), but that's where the similarities end. Plantains are longer and larger than bananas. They also have thicker skin and contain significantly more starch. The taste and preparation are the biggest differences, though. Where bananas are rarely cooked (except green bananas), cooking is essential before eating a plantain.
There are two primary varieties of plantains: French and horn. The main differences are in how each plant grows and the fruit bunches each produces. French plantains yield big bunches with lots of fruits and horn plantain bunches are much smaller with fewer fruits. To the home cook, the varieties are not significant. That is, of course, unless you're fortunate enough to live in a tropical climate and can grow your own.