What Are Plantains?

A guide to choosing and preparing one of the most popular starches in the world.

You may have seen plantains at the grocery store and thought they looked like huge green or overripe bananas. And while they are in the same family as bananas, they couldn't be more different when it comes to their flavor and how to prepare them. Learn all about this starchy fruit treasured around the world.

What Are Plantains?

Technically part of the banana family, plantains are large, starchy fruits without the signature sweetness inherent to bananas. They have a thick exterior peel that can range from greenish yellow to light brown to nearly black. The inside of the sweet yellow variety is firmer than a banana but softens more as it ripens and browns. The extremely unripe green skinned plantains have very firm, starchy flesh that clings hard to the peel.

Plantains originally hail from Southeast Asia but are most prevalent in Southern and Central America, as well as many countries in Africa. They're one of the most common starches in many cultures and are actually ranked as one of the top 10 staple foods in the world.

Plantains vs. Bananas

Technically, plantains are a type of banana but they are not interchangeable. Even the sweet yellow variety is still much higher in starch and lower in sugar than bananas. Functionally, plantains behave much more like potatoes. Plantains, especially green plantains, are also much more challenging to peel than bananas.

How to Cook Plantains

Plain and simple, the best way to cook plantains is by frying them. Sweet plantains are fried and are often referred to as maduros. These are made by cutting sweet yellow plantains into 2-3 inch sections and deep frying. The outside caramelizes beautifully, and the interior gets custardy and delicious.

Sweet plantains are also delicious roasted in the oven — treat them like a sweet potato and you'll have a delicious dish. Unlike a banana, the more brown and even black spots, the better. Dark spots mean more sugar and more flavor, so for maduros, grab the darkest ones you can find — the deep color is evidence of deeper flavor!

looking down at a bowl of sliced, sautéed sweet plantains

Get the recipe: Sautéed Sweet Plantains (Tajaditas Dulces de Platano)

Green plantains are often fried into a dish called tostones. First, they're sliced into thick discs and fried. Then, they're smashed thin into even flatter discs and fried again, almost like a chip in texture. These are almost always part of savory recipes; they make an excellent vessel for dips and chunky sauces.Due to their high starch content similar to potatoes, you shouldn't eat green plantains raw. This starchy, firm texture means they're also great boiled and seasoned with lots of savory spices.

Plantains are also very popularly prepared by mashing in a Puerto Rican dish called mofongo. Mofongo is often served with shrimp and sometimes pork. This recipe uses precooked green plantains, sometimes by frying and sometimes by boiling, and then smashed into a paste. Things like pork fat and garlic are smashed in with the plantains to flavor it.

How to Store Plantains

How you buy your plantains dictates how you store them. For yellow plantains, you can buy them a bit less ripe than you like and let them ripen on the counter for a few days until they darken to your liking or you're ready to use them. Once they're the color you're looking for, pop them in the fridge for up to a week to halt the ripening process and keep them at the stage you want.

If you buy them very dark and want to use them at that level of ripeness, refrigerate them immediately so they don't continue to ripen and possibly go bad. Green plantains will also ripen as they sit on the counter, so it's generally best to use them as soon as possible in your desired dish.

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