They may look similar, but there’s no mistaking the taste of a plantain for that of a banana. Both fruits come from plants belonging to the genus musa, a family of heat-loving herbs native to southeast Asia and the south Pacific (banana trees, biologically speaking, are not trees, but giant herbs). And like your average pair of siblings, bananas and plantains are eager to prove how dissimilar they are to one another, despite the fact that they share genes in common. Bananas are the fun, mellow, and sweet popularity queen, consumed by Americans more than any other fruit. Plantains, on the other hand, are a bit harder to get to know, showing their sweet side only after reach ripe old age.
Because of their different levels of starch and sugar, the two fruits also behave quite differently when cooked. Bananas get soft and pudding-like when heated, perfect for an oozy dessert like bananas foster. Plantains, especially green ones, are dry and dense, or crispy if you fry them long enough.
Likewise, bananas and plantains are best suited for completely different uses. Here’s a breakdown of their fundamental characteristics:
When we’re talking about bananas, we’re usually talking about one specific type of banana: the Cavendish, an easy to peel, sweet variety that makes up about 95 percent of all commercially sold bananas. There are other types of bananas out there, and occasionally you can find varieties such as creamy red bananas or stubby, tart manzanos in stores. But Cavendishes are the ones that you’re likely using to top your breakfast cereal or bake into breads.
Most Cavendishes are harvested while still underripe and green, then transported from their tropical growing regions to the country where they’ll be sold. Before reaching store shelves, they undergo an artificial ripening process using ethylene gas that helps them soften, turn yellow, and converts their starches into sugars. Without this step, they’re less likely to achieve that peak of sweet banana flavor.
For the most part, you’ll want to use bananas in dessert or sweet-friendly applications. Very green, unripe bananas are firm and starchy enough for some savory dishes, however, and can be used in place of plantains in a pinch. Check out our guide to banana desserts worth saving room for for some inspiration on how to use up a bunch.
Plantain species differ from their banana brethren in that they contain a much higher percentage of starch and less of the sweet stuff. Because of this, they’re not particularly pleasant raw. But when cooked, they have a heavy, filling, potato-like character to them, which has cemented their status as a staple across Latin America, the Caribbean, and west and central Africa. Plantains are soft and pillowy in dishes like mofongo, or they can be fried to a crisp and eaten like chips if sliced thinly. When using them in savory recipes, you want to seek out hardy, firm green plantains, which are generally larger than your average banana.
Ripe yellow and black plantains, although still on the starchy and tough side, do have a noticeable sweetness to them and caramelize nicely when cooked. They can be used to make desserts, but are still substantial enough to pair nicely with savory mains. Try them alongside beans and roast pork for a Cuban-style feast using our Sauteéd Plantains recipe. Get our Sauteéd Plantains recipe.
Header image of Bananas Foster recipe from CHOW
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.