Banana breads and cakes are easy, moist, sweet solutions for making use of those three or four bananas on your kitchen counter that are getting mushier by the minute, sprouting brown spots with ripe old age. Yet the difference between the two is as fuzzy as the distinction between a muffin and a cupcake. Slap some icing on that banana bread, and you might as well call it a cake. Banana bread is a quick bread already, so like cake and unlike regular breads, it doesn’t need time to rise. It’s the baking soda and/or baking powder that makes it rise so quickly while baking in the oven.
Even David Lebowitz doesn’t know the difference. And he’s an award-winning pastry chef, formerly at Chez Panisse, and author of seven cookbooks, starting with Room for Dessert up to My Paris Kitchen.
“I’ve never quite understood the difference between banana bread and banana cake,” he says in his banana bread recipe introduction. “I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with an explanation but just can’t think of one. But no matter. Every [sic] loves banana bread – or whatever you call it!”
If you really want to mince words here, banana bread can be denser, heavier, and less sweet than its more confectionary brethren, the banana cake. First, the obvious: Bread usually doesn’t have icing or frosting like cake often does. Then, the less obvious: Banana bread can incorporate heavier flours, like all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour, while banana cake sometimes calls for pastry (cake) flour, which is lighter.
The difference is so subjective, it can come down to: When you’re eating it, regardless of the time of day, do you feel like you’re consuming a nutritious breakfast or an indulgent dessert? Professional, semi-professional, and home bakers alike ponder this question.
Prolific homecook, award-winning blogger, and Smitten Kitchen cookbook author Deb Perelman wooed her audience with her jacked-up banana bread in 2006. Six years later however, she wrote “… it’s full of white flour and refined sugar and melted butter and it’s absolutely, unquestionably wonderful but when it comes to breakfast, I like to pretend that that I’m not feeding us cake but something wholesome and that recipe makes it hard to pull off.”
So in 2012, Perelman came up with a crackly banana bread recipe that uses millet, whole wheat flour, coconut oil, 1/3 cup of maple syrup, and 1/3 cup (max) of brown sugar. That version of banana bread felt and tasted more like breakfast to Perelman. Most cakes contain at least 1 1/2 cups of sugar, either white, brown or a mixture, and sometimes even as much as 2 1/2 cups of the sweet stuff.
So don’t worry about what you call it, and just make it, and savor the ‘nanner deliciousness. Try these recipes:
Anything with Nutella flies right to the top of our list. With half a cup of chocolate-hazelnut spread, this banana bread has some extra sweet in it that can feel as indulgent as cake. Get our roasted banana Nutella quick bread recipe.
Chunky, all-natural peanut butter and honey add more depth to this banana bread, resulting in a flavor trio that we already know will work. Get our peanut butter-honey banana bread recipe.
Toss in some chocolate chips and it’s getting closer to banana cake, in our estimation. Anything that adds more sweetness leans toward dessert. Plus, there’s that equation of chocolate + almost anything = good. Get our chocolate chip banana bread recipe.
With oats, whole wheat flour, and no sugar save for the turbinado you sprinkle on top, these muffins fall safely in the bread category. Don’t worry about lack of sweetness though: There’s honey and maple syrup to sweeten the deal. Get our healthy banana muffins recipe.
The sour cream adds a slight tang to the almost cake-y texture of this version. Get our sour cream banana bread recipe.
And finally, our nod to an official (cup-size) cake that stars this lovely creamy, tropical fruit. There aren’t as many recipes for banana cakes as there are for banana breads, but add some cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, and whip up some icing, and any banana bread will transform into a cake. This recipe doesn’t even call for more sugar than any of our other banana bread recipes (except for those healthy muffins). Less, in some cases. But we fix that with the frosting. Get our banana cupcakes recipe.