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What Are Plantains? What Makes Them Different From Bananas? ๐ŸŒ

Ever wonder what are plantains? This FAQ guide has everything you need to know—from their taste and origin to their varieties and culinary uses. 

Plantains look a lot like the usual yellow bananas many of us eat every day, with a few distinct differences!

Plantains are often firmer and longer than bananas and take longer to ripen.

Plantains can be found in many grocery stores green (unripe) or dark yellow with brown lines (getting ripe). 

It can be difficult to pick out plantains in the produce section since they may look like regular bananas. 

Plantains and bananas belong to the same family of plants.

Plantains are an essential staple in tropical countries and are used in many cuisines worldwide.

These include the dinner tables of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Globally, they constitute about 85 percent of all banana cultivation!

As typical grocery items, they are both inexpensive and flexible.

They can be cooked at any stage of ripeness and across every course of our meals, from appetizers to desserts!

Whether they appear green, yellow or dotted with brown or black spots, they are a fitting ingredient for our meals, depending on the taste you want to highlight!

Still skeptical about this?

Stick around until the end to see their places in the spectrum of flavors and all the ways they can be cooked and eaten!

The plantain (plátanos in Spanish) belongs to the genus Musa, which contains at least 40 species. 

There are over 100 varieties of plantain throughout the world. 

Having that much variation gives wiggle room for consumer preference and allows increased resistance against diseases and insects, greater yield, and higher quality.

The plantain belongs to a significant group of banana varieties (genus Musa).

This is why they look alike!

Contrary to the tree-like appearance from where they develop, the plantain plant doesn’t technically sprout from trees.

They are gigantic herbs growing from an underground stem called the rhizome.

Many of its varieties are gigantic, reaching heights from 3 to 10 meters (10 to 33 feet)!

The body consists of a false “trunk” composed of spirally arranged leaves, giving its deceptive tree-like appearance.

Plantains are believed to have originated from Southeast Asia but are now grown worldwide.

They grow best in moisture-rich, tropical climates and have therefore proliferated in areas with those accommodating conditions.

The top plantain-producing countries include Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, Rwanda, Colombia, Nigeria, Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, and the United Republic of Tanzania.

Through trade from Southeast Asia, the plantains sure have dominated the world!

What do plantains taste like?

The flavors of plantains vary depending on their ripeness when they’re cooked and consumed.

Unripe plantains have green, tough skins that are harder to peel than bananas.

At this point, the fruit itself is firm, starchy, slightly nutty, and does not have a hint of sweetness.

It is more akin to a raw potato than its naturally candied relatives like Cavendish bananas!

As they ripen, they develop a yellow color along with brown to black spots and stripes along their skins, eventually brown enveloping the whole fruit.

This change in color tells us that the starches inside are being converted to sugars, which only makes it sweeter!

Its skin during this stage becomes thinner and easier to peel.

Doing so would reveal a sticky and syrupy fruit inside, which puts this stage on par with bananas in the desserts category!

Talk about flexibility.

Where do plantains come from?

As mentioned, plantains belong to the genus Musa and are abundant in tropical countries. 

It’s believed that plantain originated in Southeast Asia, like its cousin banana. 

Some plantain varieties are grown in India and in some parts of East Africa; however, it’s now one of the most cultivated edible fruits worldwide.

Are plantains seasonal?

Plantains are not only all-around in recipe books; they can also be grown year-round, as they have no specific growing seasons

This makes them valuable food sources for many countries with poor food storage, preservation, and transportation technologies.

Plantains grow in clusters and are harvested manually around 3 to 4 months after flowering.

This makes them easy to find in the produce section, no matter the time of year.

How to tell when plantains are ready to eat

Plantains can be eaten at any ripening stage, but it requires peeling before using them in culinary uses. 

Most unripe plantains feature green to yellow color and their skins are thin and hard to peel.

Those are specifically used as starchy vegetables in soups and stews; unripe plantains are cooked similarly to cooking carrots and potatoes. 

Ripe plantains have fully black skin and a little yellow hue; they also feel soft to the touch but are not similar to sweet, ripe bananas. 

Plantains have different appearances when cooked based on the cooking process they undergo.

These processes include steaming, boiling, grilling, frying, and baking.

Whatever the case, what’s definite is that they will always turn out delicious!

Types of plantains

Primarily, there are four types of plantains grown: French, French horn, False horn, and horn.

Their differences lie in how they grow, the fruit bunches they produce, and the presence or absence of the male bud.

French plantains yield larger bunches with many smaller fruits, commonly grown in India, Africa, Egypt, and tropical America, similar to horn plantain. 

You can also find them in Indonesia and some islands of the Pacific. 

They are usually subdivided into size categories between giant, medium, and small.

The French horn and false horn types are very similar to each other. 

The latter is found mostly in Europe, western Asia, and some parts of Africa, but both produce large fruits. 

French horn’s bunches are denser, yielding more than the false horn. 

Lastly, horn types have very few fruits spread over one to five hands.

They have the least amount of yield among the other types.

Who knew such a simple fruit would have so many variants?

Fun fact: According to a study, French plantain tends to taste better than false horn plantain.

Plantains vs bananas

If you’re wondering where plantains come from, bananas and plantains come from the same family of plants.

The pair has similar ripening appearances, starting with green skin that turns yellow, then dark brown to black as they ripen.

And that’s just about where the similarities conclude!

Despite their similarities, plantains aren’t as commonplace in household fruit baskets as bananas. 

In most cases, you can’t even substitute bananas with plantains unless they’re ripe, but don’t expect them to have similar flavor profiles. 

Plantains are a lot larger, longer, and tougher than bananas.

They also have thicker skin which requires a knife to peel them.

Their largest difference lies in how they’re used in dishes. 

Bananas are rarely cooked, as they are already great eaten or added to dishes raw.

On the other hand, plantains require cooking before eating them—and there are many ways to do so!

How to pick out plantains

It takes about 10 days for plantains to ripen, so when you are in the store and looking for fruits to use the same day or next day, find the ones with the most spots and darkest brown color with no remnants of green at the ends.

Ways to use plantains

Plantains, by nature, are fruits but are often eaten and cooked as one might with vegetables.

As previously mentioned, every stage of ripeness contributes to delicious meals across flavor profiles.

Great for a party appetizer or side dish, Tostones are very easy to make!

It uses the starchy flavor of unripe, green plantains that don’t have any sweetness to them.

This recipe makes extra crispy plantains from double-frying and even adds a special dipping sauce.

Unlike the crunchy, deep-fried chips, baked plantains are much thicker and use ripe, yellow plantains instead!

This keeps their cores tender as the surface becomes crispy around the edges.

Check out this recipe for a moist and tender iteration of the very simple fruit!

A favorite in West Africa, this recipe calls for the ripest stage of the plantain, where they’re mostly blackened.

There are but a few steps required to accomplish this sweet snack!

The Plantain Frittata is a great way to elevate plantains from plain snacks to full meals.

It is an omelet made of ingredients easily found in the pantry, and the plantain is a compatible and flavorful addition to it!

This classic Puerto Rican dish is perfect for potlucks and family gatherings!

It uses very ripe plantains whose sweetness complements the savory flavors of ground meat and cheese.

Mofongo is a tasty side dish made of mashed green plantains with pork rinds, garlic, and olive oil.

It can also either be formed into small balls to drop in soups or served directly in a mortar.

What a banger of a side dish this is, prepared in so many forms!

Tips on storing plantains

Plantains are stored depending on how you want to use them.

If you want to speed up their ripening, place plantains inside a loosely closed brown paper bag away from sunlight.

It then takes somewhere between one to two weeks at room temperature for them to become as sweet as you like them!

Are they at the stage where you want them but aren’t intent on using them yet?

Some tools for storing your plantains:

  • These caps help keep plantains fresher longer.
  • This rack stand helps keep plantains from crushing under their own weight.
  • Green produce bags to help delay ripening. 
  • Refrigeration helps keep overripe plantains free from nosy fruit flies and to suspend ripening for a little while.

How to freeze plantains

Simply peel completely and transfer whole or sliced into a freezer-safe plastic bag or airtight container for three months.

The bottom line

Plantains may commonly be confused with bananas but are equipped with a wider arsenal of flavors and textures.

They can be used sweet or savory and presented on their own or as a complementary flavor to a more well-rounded dish!

Check out more info and recipes on the awesome plantain!