Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: This fruit -- technically a berry -- is so versatile, you can treat it like a fruit or a vegetable and use it at every stage of ripeness.
Plantains look like oversized bananas, so it’s no surprise that the two fruits are closely related -- so closely, in fact, that although the U.S. makes a distinction between bananas and plantains, that isn’t the case in other countries. That’s because, as we talked about last week, we only see Cavendish bananas in our grocery stores (for the most part), which leaves us with a straightforward choice between bananas (also referred to as "dessert bananas" because we can eat them raw) and plantains (sometimes called "cooking plantains" because they're cooked before eating). But in other countries -- the ones that see more of the 1000 different banana varieties -- this clear-cut distinction between the two is less applicable.
Like bananas, plantains grow on a giant herb, and their peel color changes from green (1, below) to yellow (3, below) to completely black as they ripen -- and they can be eaten at every stage. Elizabeth Schneider breaks down the fruit’s characteristics: “When the skin is green to nearly yellow, [the] plantain is solid and starchy, like yuca or a dense waxy potato; when the skin is yellow to mottled brown, [the] plantain has a slight fruitiness and a more tender but still firm texture; when brown to black-ripe, the golden flesh is creamy and sweet but holds its shape when cooked, unlike [a] banana.”
Plantains can be stored at room temperature, but they can take a long time to ripen -- which could be good or bad depending on what stage you’re looking for. Thus, you'll generally want to buy plantains at the ripeness stage you want to be cooking with. If you buy them green and intend to use them that way but don't plan to use them in the near future, store them in the refrigerator.
Plantains are harder to peel than bananas, and if this news makes you wish plantains had a specialized peeler like other fruits do, you're sadly out of luck. There once was a plantain peeler that Amanda said “worked ingeniously,” but unfortunately it's no longer available. You'll need a good paring knife to prep them instead: Slice off the top and bottom (2, above) of each plantain, cut it into a few smaller chunks, make shallow slits through the peel down the length of each ridge, and then remove the pieces of peel.
Steven Raichlen adds: “Some chefs soak the plantain sections in a bowl of ice water before skinning. Others skin the plantains under running water to wash away the milky liquid that sometimes seeps from the skin. If you do, pat the plantain sections dry with paper towels." If you're still having trouble, it’s also possible to peel sections after cooking depending on the preparation (you'll have the best luck when boiling, steaming, or grilling).
When you're ready to eat your plantains, here are 10 ideas for cooking them at every level of ripeness:
Less Ripe (plantains that range from green to just barely yellow, like 1, above)
More Ripe (plantains that are yellow with lots of spots, brownish, or black, like 3, above)
Tell us: How do you like to eat plantains?
Photos by Bobbi Lin