The Gloriously Versatile Plantain

Every starch has its secrets. Here’s what makes plantains so exceptional.

A report by Yewande Komolafe for The New York Times.

Starches — legumes, tubers, grains, to name a few — are a motley bunch. But one thing they share is how they strike a delicate balance between firm and plump, and, well, dried out or mealy when cooked. One starch, though, is sturdy enough to withstand a little overcooking and can be prepared at any stage of ripeness: the gloriously versatile plantain.

Maximizing plantains’ qualities requires treating them slightly differently when they’re green and firm, and when they’re spotted yellow and black. In each form, they’re easy to work with and hard to ruin. Plantain-loving cooks among us know that you can use them in all manner of ways: in savory soups and stews, as a side dish to proteins, and as vessels for dips and sauces.

Plantains and bananas have similar appearances, and their names are sometimes used interchangeably. In fact, plantains are occasionally referred to as “cooking bananas.” But to call a plantain a banana is a bit of an oversimplification.

Think of plantains as a subcategory of banana. They’re genetically similar, thanks to selective propagation over thousands of years. And, like bananas, plantains grow in tropical and subtropical climates across the globe, ensuring that they are always in season and making them a crucial ingredient in cuisines across West Africa, South and Central America, India and the Caribbean. But the main differences between the two are that plantains are starchier than bananas, not as easily peeled and usually not eaten raw. Rather, they shine when cooked.

As with most fruit, plantains ripen over a few days to a week (or more), evolving from a dense starch that can thicken a savory broth to a tender, pulpy fruit that can add moisture and sweetness to a dish. Green plantains are low in sugar and high in starch, while spotted yellow and black plantains, farther along in their ripening process, are high in sugar from converted starches. Applications of heat, such as roasting and shallow- or deep-frying, intensify these sugars.

This recipe for plantains with jammy tomatoes is based on “tomato eggs,” a dish popular in Lagos, Nigeria, and across West Africa.
This recipe for plantains with jammy tomatoes is based on “tomato eggs,” a dish popular in Lagos, Nigeria, and across West Africa.

Green plantains almost always work best when cooked with liquid, such as tomato sauce, coconut milk, pan drippings and vegetable or meat stocks. Neutral in flavor, like potatoes or yams, they take on the flavor of surrounding broths. They also hold their shape in stews and soups, such as asaro and sancocho, while thickening the base and soaking up flavor.

Green or firm yellow plantains can also be peeled, cut and boiled until tender and served with eggs for breakfast. At any time of day, these plantains can be shaved thin and fried into golden crispy chips or cut into rounds, fried and smashed like tostones. They also taste great boiled and mashed, as with mofongo and mangú.

Yellow plantains, which have a high moisture content, will soften and sweeten as they cook. If you are making dodo, tatales, banan peze or any other dishes that call for pan-frying plantains, you’ll want to use ripe ones, preferably with dark spots emerging on their skins.

Nearly black plantains will add creamy, custardy sweetness to fritters, like mosa.
Nearly black plantains will add creamy, custardy sweetness to fritters, like mosa.

If you can find only green plantains and want them to ripen, pop them in a paper bag and store them on your counter. They’ll take anywhere from three to seven days to blacken, depending on how warm your kitchen is. There is a moment when the sugars in a black plantain will begin to ferment and release a slightly acrid smell. If that scent is detected or if mold begins to show on the skin, the plantains should be composted.

Nearly black plantains will add creamy, custardy sweetness to fritters, like mosa, and to breads, cakes and most baked goods. At this stage of ripeness, cooking transforms the plantains’ sugars into a caramelized sweetness.

And since its sugars only deepen in character the longer they cook, a fried ripe plantain with slightly charred edges is not ruined. It is remarkable.

Recipe: Mosa (Plantain Fritters) | Plantains With Jammy Tomatoes and Eggs

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