plĂˇtanos machos in Spanish
These tropical mainstays look like oversize bananas and taste a bit like them, too. But plantains (which can be pronounced plan-tins or plan-tanes), or plátanos machos in Spanish, are like three fruits in one because they can be eaten at three distinct stages of ripeness, each with a different texture and flavor. Unripe, with green peels, they’re firm and starchy with a potato-like flavor that has subtle banana and peanut notes.When the peels are yellow with brown spots, they’re partially ripe and slightly softer, with a delicately sweet flavor that’s a mix between banana and butternut squash. And in their ripest state, when their peels are dark brown or black, they have a creamy texture and a buttery taste. This diversity makes these so-called cooking bananas a favorite in hot climates around the world.
The genus Musa includes bananas and plantains, which have grown wild in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia since prehistoric times. The plants, which fruit year-round in tropical climates, were spread across the globe by traders and explorers. Over time and through cultivation, bananas became a distinct species from plantains. The former has a higher water content (about 83 percent) and can be eaten raw, while the latter is starchier (about 65 percent water) and must be cooked unless very ripe.
Plantains are available year-round in Latin, Caribbean, Asian, and African markets, in addition to well-stocked grocery stores. Select those with the fewest blemishes and no mold on the peels, which should be firm and give only slightly under pressure at any stage of ripeness.
Before they ripen fully, plantains can be difficult to peel. The easiest way is to slice off both ends, then score along the bulging seam. Gently pry open the slit and slide your fingers under the peel to remove it. To preserve plantains at a desired stage of ripeness, peel them and freeze them whole, well wrapped in plastic.
Firm, starchy, unripe green plantains can be used like potatoes—they’re often thinly sliced and fried into chips. Two traditional Latin-Caribbean dishes, tostones and mofongo, also use green plantains. Tostones are slices of plantain that are fried, smashed flat, and then fried again. Mofongo is a dish made from fried cubes of plantain mashed into a thick paste that’s mixed with meat. Green plantains pair well with assertive flavors like chile, onion, and curry, as well as with fatty meats like pork.
Partially ripened yellow plantains can be boiled or fried, then mashed to a doughy consistency to make dumplings or African fufu, a porridge-like dish. They can also be cut into planks and grilled, fried, or baked—at this stage of ripeness, they have enough sugar that they’ll caramelize a bit, but they’re still firm enough to hold their shape. With their sweet and savory notes, yellow plantains pair well with other savory ingredients that have some sweetness, like garlic and onions. They also benefit from some acid, like lime, or tangy ingredients like sour cream or cheese, and they have a creamy flavor that pairs well with black beans.
Ripe, darkened plantains, or maduros in Spanish, can be quite sweet and are more flavorful than green or yellow plantains. They can be eaten as a side dish, either baked, sautéed, or fried in a dish called Plátanos Maduros Fritos. Fried planks of sweet, ripe plantains are used in place of noodles in a Puerto Rican lasagne called pastelón, but more often maduros are served as a dessert. They pair well with warm spices like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, or with sweet flavors like vanilla, coconut, and brown butter.
Plantains should be stored at room temperature out of direct light. Green ones will ripen to dark brown or black in two to three weeks. Once completely ripe, they can remain at room temperature for three to five days.