Real Food Encyclopedia | Bananas
Let’s get the most important banana-related question out of the way: how do you peel a banana? The question has sparked great Internet debate: people are very opinionated about the right, and wrong, way to do it. Trying to peel a banana from the stem end often results in a bit of squished banana at the top. Some people open them from the bottom end, as monkeys do. Others avoid opening bananas from the bottom to steer clear of the repulsive, slimy little nubbin at the very tip. And opportunists, well they open them from the top unless the bananas start to squish, and then they’ll switch to the bottom opening method. In this case, it’s not always monkey see, monkey do.
Fun Facts about Bananas:
- Bananas show up regularly in art. There is a Japanese artist who makes sculptures out of bananas. Andy Warhol dug bananas, and stuck a print of a banana on his cover for “The Velvet Underground & Nico” And of course, there is Paul Gauguin’s “The Meal (The Bananas)“.
- A family in England had to evacuate their home because they found a nest of the world’s deadliest spiders on a bunch of bananas purchased from their local grocery store.
- Bananas are slightly radioactive.
What to Look for When Buying Bananas
Unless you intend to eat your bananas right away, look for a bunch that is still slightly green and allow them to ripen on your counter. The bananas should be firm, without bruised or black spots. (As they ripen, of course, their skin becomes golden yellow flecked with brown spots.)
Sustainability of Bananas
The environmental impact of conventionally grown bananas is pretty huge. First, the majority of banana plantations are monocultures (meaning that only one type of crop is grown in a given area and in the case of bananas, only one variety), which make them more susceptible to disease (and thus more reliant on pesticides) and drastically reduce natural biodiversity, not to mention rainforest destruction.
Secondly, there is a huge amount of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) used on banana plantations, which has a negative impact on local wildlife and waterways. Bananas show up at number 30 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Labor Issues with Some Bananas
In addition, there have been historically, and continue to be, workers’ rights violations in the banana industry across the world. Human Rights Watch documented child labor (which included children being exposed to pesticides) and extreme deterrents (including retaliation) to organized labor activities in one of the largest banana growing areas in the world, Ecuador. (This older New York Times article describes child labor in Ecuador in detail.) Pesticide exposure is also a major concern amongst banana plantation workers.
The good news: things seem to be getting better, with the introduction of Fair Trade certified bananas, organic plantations and the work of groups like Rainforest Alliance, which offers a banana certification program using certification standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Seek out organic and/or fairly traded bananas when you can (although note that they are generally quite a bit more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts).
Bananas and Geography
The banana industry is huge. Bananas (including plantains) are one of the most important staple crops in the world, and constitute a multibillion-dollar industry with major multinational corporations in on the banana-growing game. India, China, the Philippines and Ecuador lead world production. The US is the world’s largest importer of the fruit, but plays a minimal role in commercial cultivation; in the US they are grown in Hawaii and Florida.
Bananas are grown in tropical areas and can produce nearly year-round, so seasonality is not particularly relevant to the fruit, except in those states where they are grown.
Ripen green bananas on the counter. You can also store them on the counter – but note that they will continue to ripen, and sometimes pretty quickly, depending on how warm it is. Contrary to popular belief, you can store bananas in the refrigerator, but only after they have become the exact level of ripeness you want. Sticking them in the fridge will turn their skins black, but the fruit inside will pretty much stay the same ripeness (the cold retards ripening – which is why you don’t want to put a green banana in the fridge). Keep bananas away from highly perishable fruits and vegetables; bananas give off high levels of ethylene gas that promotes ripening and eventual decay in many fruits and veggies.
You can also use bananas’ ethylene gas to your advantage: to ripen a hard avocado overnight, stick it in a paper bag with a ripe banana. The banana’s ethylene gas will work its magic on the avocado, making it perfectly ripe and ready for your next batch of guacamole.
Cooking with Bananas
The most common way to eat bananas is of course, out of hand. But they’re also used for a variety of sweet and savory dishes. In sweets, you’ll find them baked, caramelized, broiled and even grilled. Bananas are frequently paired with their tropical brethren: think coconut, rum, chocolate and citrus. They are also commonly paired with warming spices (like cinnamon and nutmeg) and dairy products (like ice cream). Bananas’ more savory cousins, plantains, must be cooked before being eaten – they’re delicious fried (as in tostones), roasted, sautéed and stewed and can be used like potatoes in many dishes.
Because bananas tend to get soft (and much sweeter) the riper they get, the ripeness of your banana should dictate what you do with it. Most banana bread recipes call for super soft bananas; on the other hand, if you’re planning on caramelizing them or slicing for garnish (like in this banana pudding recipe), firmer bananas are the way to go. There are a couple of famous banana-based desserts, each with their own interesting history. Bananas Foster, a dish of caramelized bananas with banana liquor and rum, was invented in New Orleans in 1951. The banana split was invented in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1904. Banana cream pie first began to appear in print in the early 1900s. You can also find (or make) banana vinegar and banana wine (popular in parts of Africa).
Bananas freeze beautifully — just peel them and stick them in a zip-top bag for use in smoothies and other yummy recipes, like this amazing banana ice cream, no ice cream maker necessary. If you’re going to freeze them, go one step further and make chocolate-covered frozen bananas for an instant dessert. You can also make your own banana chips in the oven. Banana jam or banana ketchup, a popular condiment in the Philippines, are other fun ways to preserve a bunch of bananas, and will keep for several weeks in the fridge.
Bananas are really, really good for you! One medium-sized banana will give you about 12 percent of your daily fiber needs, plus lots of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, potassium and manganese. Bananas even have a bit of protein, iron and calcium. Plantains have all that and more; add Vitamin A and folate to the list of their nutritional goodies.