Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Make banana bread just like Mom used to—slightly underbaked and full of add-ins from the pantry—without a recipe.
I’m not sure my mom would consider herself a stylish woman, but when it came to cooking for me as a kid, she had an undeniable je ne sais quoi. Most notably, she could never be bothered to bake things all the way. Brownies and banana breads were always whisked out of the oven ten minutes before they were done because my mother had to move onto the next item on the list: gardening, laundry, or maybe an episode of "Judge Judy." As a result, her baked goods would collapse in the middle into a gooey, molten center best eaten with a spoon. It may not have been the “right” way to bake, but that didn’t stop me and my sisters from pushing each other out of the way and fighting over who’d get to excavate the last scoop of warm, barely-cooked batter from the pan.
Her easygoing baking style also meant that my mom improvised masterpieces, and they were slightly different every time. While many folks clean out their fridges with a hodgepodge frittata or a chopped salad, she would make banana bread. Maybe she’d toss in a handful of leftover granola or the lingering few teaspoons of sour cream from taco night. Observing her taught me that there’s no one way to make banana bread.
So follow 6 steps and a handful of rules, then experiment—you'll effortlessly bake your way to something delicious:
1. Begin with better bananas. The riper the banana, the deeper the flavor. If you haven’t got any blackened bananas stored away in your freezer (you’ll need 3 or 4), you can also try this nifty trick: Preheat your oven to 250 or 300° F and put your bananas directly on the center rack to cook for about an hour. The gentle, steady heat will deepen the banana flavor and ripen the fruit to banana bread perfection.
Not a banana fan? You can swap bananas for other fruit mixtures. Applesauce is a classic substitution, as is canned pumpkin or shredded squash like zucchini. In the fall, leftover Thanksgiving cranberry sauce is another great guest star.
2. Learn the 3-2-1 rule, the secret to banana bread without a recipe. Here's a trick I learned from First We Feast: To get the right consistency, you want 3 parts flour, 2 parts sugar, and 1 part vegetable oil. For a standard loaf, I use a 1/2-cup measure. Fill your scoop once with oil (melted butter, Greek yogurt, or coconut oil can also be used), twice with sugar (granulated sugar or light brown sugar tastes great), and three times with all-purpose flour. Get it?
3. Combine like ingredients. A classic rule for quick bread is to combine the wet ingredients separately from the dry ingredients. Start with the bananas. Peel them and drop them into your bowl, then mash with a fork or potato masher. Once thawed, frozen, overripe bananas will practically liquify, which is ideal. You may have to do a bit more manual labor if you're using fresh bananas. Add oil, 1 egg, a splash of vanilla extract, and a few tablespoons of milk (or water, or cream, or rum—just something to loosen up the batter a bit) to complete your wet ingredients.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda.
4. Mix! But not too much. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Limit yourself to fifteen strokes or so. Lumps and small pockets of flour are okay and will keep the cake moist, while over-mixing will create something dry and gummy. The batter should be wet but thick—the consistency should be firm enough that you need a second spoon to scrape the batter off your mixing spoon.
The ripeness of your fruit, as well as the type of fat you're using, can cause the consistency to vary. If your batter is too thin, the mix-ins will fall and collect at the bottom—add a little more flour to remedy the issue. If the batter is too thin, pour in a little bit more milk (or whatever liquid you used earlier).
5. Add in the good bits. Dive into your pantry and see what you can find. Chocolate chips and walnuts are my go-to, but I’ve also tossed in coconut flakes, other types of nuts, a variety of dried fruits, candied ginger, peanut butter chips, ground espresso beans, sesame seeds, marshmallows, pumpkin pie spice mix, and more. Get creative, take risks with your combinations, and make the most of this pantry-cleaning moment.
Throw a few handfuls of your mix-ins into the batter and stir. Remember: Don’t over-mix. About five more strokes should do it!
6. Bake. Grease your loaf pan (and line it with parchment paper for extra security), pour in the batter, and bake for about 1 hour in an oven that's been preheated to 350° F. The same batter can be baked in a 8-inch square pan or an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan, or poured into muffin tins (start checking cakes after 35 minutes and muffins after 20).
Most people would say to take your bake out of the oven when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. I say, cut it short a few minutes and enjoy the sticky center. You have episodes of "Judge Judy" to watch, after all.
What do you like to put in your banana bread? Tell us in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom