So, what exactly is a plantain? Featured in recipes from many different cultures, Plantains are a starchy, earthy fruit that can be used in tons of different ways. Similar to a banana in appearance and a potato in texture, there’s a lot you might not know about this versatile fruit.
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What Are Plantains?
If you asked a scientist, they’d tell you that tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are all fruits, and so is the plantain. In the kitchen, all of these things are used as vegetables and tend to find their homes in more savory dishes. Because it looks so much like a banana, this is harder to tell with a plantain than with the other vegetable imposters listed above—until you peel it open and get a taste.
Plantains are almost always cooked for the same reason potatoes are. They don’t taste good raw, and the texture is hard and starchy. They have to be cooked to softness or crispness for their true, earthy flavor to come out. When cooked, their rich taste and buttery texture have made them a kitchen staple in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Africa and The Caribbean.
Are They Different from Bananas?
Plantains are related to the banana, but their taste, texture, and use in cooking are very different. Substituting one for the other in recipes can leave you with a disappointing dish. Where the banana is sweet and soft, plantains are hard and starchy, and their peels are more difficult to remove. They are most similar to bananas when they’re fully ripe and the more complex starches start to break down into simpler sugars, turning them softer and sweeter.
Are Plantains Healthier Than Bananas?
While they might taste very different, plantains are actually very close relatives to the banana. They have basically all the health benefits of bananas, only ramped up. They contain more potassium and other essential vitamins and minerals, and less simple sugar. There’s a bit of a tradeoff though, since plantains have more calories and carbs overall.
What Do They Taste Like?
Plantains have a taste and texture more similar to potatoes than bananas. They get sweeter the riper they are, so dessert recipes will usually call for riper plantains, while more savory dishes tend to use firmer, less ripe plantains. When fried, plantains get a slightly sweet caramelized crust or glaze around the outside that compliments their earthy flavor.
Do You Have to Soak Plantains Before Cooking?
Soaking plantains isn’t a necessary step, but many recipes call for it anyway. This takes time, and it’s only really a benefit to your dish if the plantains are being fried or grilled. Fried plantains get crunchier on the outside and more tender on the inside if they are soaked in salt water beforehand. If you skip the soaking, tostones and other fried plantain dishes can turn out a little underwhelming.
What to Look For at the Store
When shopping for plantains, firmness is important. You want plantains that don’t give under gentle pressure from your thumb. Even if your recipe calls for ripe plantains, it’s best to buy them when they’re still green or yellow and wait for them to ripen on the counter. Never buy plantains with shriveled skin or squishy insides.
How to Tell if a Plantain is Ripe
While most recipes tend to use fruit only when it’s ripe, that’s not the case with plantains. Fried and boiled plantains are often prepared using fruit that is still green. In this state, the peels are too tough to open with your hands and have to be cut off at the ends and split down the sides so the skin can be peeled off in panels.
If you have a sweeter recipe that calls for fully ripe plantains, leave them out on the counter for 7-10 days or in a brown paper bag until they are almost fully black with little spots or patches of yellow. Fully ripened plantains should be slightly soft to the touch with a resistance similar to a peach. Once they’ve reached full ripeness, the skin should become easier to remove, similar to the skin of a banana.
How To Ripen Plantains
Did you buy some green plantains at the store and they are taking forever to ripen? Here are a couple of common ways to speed up the ripening process:
- Naturally: To allow plantains to ripen naturally, simply allow the plantains to sit undisturbed at room temperature for a week or two, until the outsides are nice and blackened.
- Brown Paper Bag: To speed up the process, you can place your plantains in a brown paper bag (or wrapped in newspaper). This method allows for the ethylene gas created by the plantains to help ripen the fruit. When I do this method, my plantains are usually ready in 4 to 5 days, depending on how ripe your plantains are to start with.
- Uncooked Rice: This is another common method to help ripen plantains. Burying plantains in uncooked rice also helps to trap ethylene gas which speeds up the ripening process. This method takes about the same amount of time as a brown paper bag, approximately 4 to 5 days, depending on how ripe your plantains are to start with.
- Microwave: I do not recommend this method. I find microwaving the plantains to only help to soften them, but they are not as sweet as truly ripened plantains.
How to Properly Store Them
Although plantains can be refrigerated, don’t put them in the fridge if you want them to ripen. While the peel may darken, the fruit inside will stay the same as when you put it in the fridge. Once your plantains have reached the ripeness level you’re looking for, pop them into the fridge to keep them exactly the way you want them.
Don’t eat fully ripened plantains stored in the fridge after more than two days. If you think you’ll need to wait longer than that, you can store peeled and cut plantains in the freezer. Cut them into disks or cubes, put them in a freezer bag, and keep them for up to 3 months. If you plan to fry, steam or boil the plantains, you don’t have to defrost them – but if you want to, you can leave them in the fridge to thaw overnight.
Ways to Use Plantains in Recipes
With their early savoriness and later sweetness, there are so many ways to use plantains at any level of ripeness. Here are some easy recipes that make the most of this versatile fruit.
Platanos Maduros (Fried Sweet Plantains) are an easy side dish or appetizer made from sliced plantains fried in butter. This sweet dish calls for fully ripened plantains, which have the highest simple sugar content. The outsides get caramelized as they cook, while the insides stay tender and buttery.
Another easy plantain recipe with butter and plantains as the only ingredients, this one uses green plantains that haven’t had a chance to ripen. Unlike the sweet Maduros, the more savory tostones are twice-fried and salted. You can experiment with different dipping sauces to make these really shine.
This third recipe calls for plantains that aren’t ripe or unripe, but somewhere in the middle. Thinly sliced yellow-green plantains are fried in vegetable oil and lightly salted. You’ll adore this crispy alternative to potato chips!
Empanadas de Plátano Maduro
Stuffed with delightfully gooey queso and fried to golden brown perfection, empanadas de plátano Maduro are the ultimate mix of sweet and savory. They call for sweet ripened plantains pressed into a potato-like mash, fried up and filled with soft mozzarella.
Where mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes call for completely different vegetables, sweet and savory mashed plantains are made with the exact same fruit. Try mashing ripe plantains with cinnamon and coconut milk, or unripened plantains with garlic and cheese.
A layered dish similar to lasagna, pastelón calls for thin slices of plantain separated by creamy and meaty layers of ground beef and cheese. Just like lasagna, you can shake things up to make this vegetarian or experiment with other ingredients.
Traditional Plantain Mofongo
This traditional Puerto-Rican dish is savory, so it calls for unripened green plantains. The plantains are fried and mashed together with pork and spices. It’s normally served in a dome shape, surrounded by other food or with a broth drizzled over the top. Though mofongo is traditionally a side dish, you can pretty easily make it a meal by stuffing it with seafood or serving a protein on the side.
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