Plantains 101

Last week, my local grocery store had a huge sale on plantains. I’d never seen an uncooked plantain before in my life, but the name triggered a memory of the tender, caramelized plantains I’d shared with my family at a Brazilian steakhouse months before. Mmm… I decided to buy some then and there!

To my eye plantains = giant bananas, so I took what I know about bananas via the “Chiquita Banana” song and picked a bunch of smooth yellow fruits speckled with black. But researching ways to cook my purchase hours later, I learned that choosing plantains is a whole other bag of beans from choosing the bananas I know and love.

There are two fundamental types of plantains: green (aka unripe) and ripe (aka sweet). Unlike types of apples, which refer to different breeds of the fruit (think granny smith vs pink lady), these “types” of plantains reference ripeness, not breed.

A green plantain is just that: green. These unripe plantains are firm and starchy, more like a potato or yucca than a banana. Ripe plantains, the variety I remembered from the restaurant, are green plantains that have ripened until their starches have broken down into sugars. Unlike bananas, sweet plantains should be ripened until black. Like, in-your-face, nearly-rotten-looking black.

Green vs Ripe Plantain

The two are cooked very differently: generally, green plantains are fried and made savory, while ripe plantains are baked or used in desserts. Every culture has its own ways of preparing the fruit, but this seems to be the rule of thumb.

Plantains are popular in dozens of countries worldwide, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Though plantains are not native to these areas—they were brought from tropical Southeast Asia by slave traders and merchants long ago—they have become an integral part of their cultural cuisines.

Most of these cuisines focus on the green plantain rather than the sweet one. A common preparation is slicing the green plantain and frying the pieces until crisp on the outside. This snack or side dish is popular throughout Central America (particularly Puerto Rico) and is referred to as either tostones or patacones depending on the country. In Cuban cuisine, the plantain is often sliced much thinner and fried into crispy chips, a dish known as mariquitas.

Mariquitas de Plátano

For those wondering, my neither-green-nor-ripe plantains did not go to waste—I let them ripen all the way and baked them (and they were delicious)—but now that I have this information, I’ll be reaching for the green plantains next time so I can try out these dishes. Here’s hoping they go on sale again soon!

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