8 Easy Upgrades for Better Banana Bread

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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Let me say this in no uncertain terms: You make terrific banana bread. Chock-full of honey and walnuts or chocolate chips and pecans, or just plain and simple, every loaf is as deliciously distinct as the person who baked it, and I'm confident yours ranks among the best.

I don't come here professing to have a banana bread that's better than yours; just a list of ingredient tweaks to elevate the recipe you already love. And if you happen to be in the market for a new recipe, of course, I'm glad to lend you mine.

Here are eight simple steps I use to upgrade my banana bread.

Step 1: Toast the Sugar

Okay, if you've been baking along with me for any length of time, you probably saw this one coming—I've been obsessed with toasted sugar for a while. For this application, you don't need to invest in the full five-hour process. In fact, banana bread is much, much better with lightly toasted sugar. We're talkin' one hour, tops.

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That's all you need to round out the sugar's natural sweetness and coax out some subtle caramelization to really make the bananas pop. Unlike switching to brown sugar or turbinado, using toasted sugar won't change the underlying chemistry of the batter. That means no weird surprises when it comes to rise or browning; just a simple boost in flavor to the loaf you already love.

Step 2: Use Coconut Oil

Most banana bread recipes call for oil instead of butter, in large part because oil contains more fat per ounce, making a loaf that's especially rich and moist. But liquid oils can sometimes make banana bread feel heavy and wet, or just a touch greasy. That's where coconut oil comes in. It makes banana bread as rich and moist as any other, but because it's solid at room temperature, it provides a slow-melting richness that's more along the lines of butter.

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Vegetable oil (left) and coconut oil (right), both at room temperature.

The tropical aroma of virgin coconut oil can amplify the fruity, floral taste of banana in a major way, but if you're not keen on coconut flavor, look for refined coconut oil instead. It has all the same properties of virgin coconut oil, minus the tropical vibe.

If you do happen to have a recipe that calls for butter, try adding a spoonful of coconut oil to the batter to protect your loaf from drying out.

Step 3: Use Perfectly Ripe Bananas

Green bananas are so high in starch and low in sugar that they can make banana bread crumbly, with a mouth-drying astringency. Yellow bananas have a mix of sugar and starch that will produce a wonderfully light and fluffy bread, while those that are completely black can make for a dense, somewhat gummy loaf. (They can also make the batter too thin, leading to problems with rise.)

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For that reason, I like bananas that are only just beginning to turn spotty and brown, or else greenish-to-yellow bananas "speed-ripened" for 30 minutes with an egg yolk or two (more on that technique here).

Step 4: Toast the Nuts

Since I grew up down south, it's impossible for me to imagine banana bread without pecans, but whether you prefer walnuts or sunflower seeds, be sure to toast 'em up before you get started.

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Not only does toasting bring out more of their nutty flavor, it ensures the pieces stay crisp despite soaking in a moisture-rich batter. Raw nuts tend to soften over time, turning mealy and damp in the loaf.

Step 5: Use Whole-Grain Flour

Don't mistake this for a diet-friendly move; whole-grain flour can absorb (and retain) more water than all-purpose, and that accomplishes three things. One, it allows the batter to accommodate more banana purée without turning to soup. Two, it creates a thicker batter, resulting in a more attractive peak. Three, it helps keep the loaf from drying out, improving its texture and shelf life.

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Whole wheat flour and buckwheat flour have a special affinity for bananas, but I've got a soft spot for the comforting flavor of oat flour, which can replace up to 25% of the all-purpose flour by weight in your favorite recipe. Though you can technically grind rolled oats in a food processor, this DIY approach doesn't give you the pillowy softness that commercially milled oat flour can lend to a loaf. I'm fond of buying Bob's Red Mill in bulk online, but if you don't mind paying for the convenience, grab whatever brand you find at the store.

Step 6: Use Greek Yogurt

Banana bread recipes typically call for buttermilk, or else milk and lemon juice, to help acidulate the batter. Because it's so much thicker, plain Greek yogurt (whether full-fat or skim) is actually a much better choice, because thicker batters peak more in the oven, for a loaf that's nicely domed rather than flat.

Step 7: Use Nutmeg and Cloves

Most recipes keep things simple in the spice department, adding little more than a dash of cinnamon and vanilla. It's not that I want my banana bread to pass for a pumpkin spice latte, but amping up the spice blend can actually intensify the banana's natural flavor.

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As bananas ripen, much of their characteristic flavor and aroma comes from the development of a compound called eugenol. Baking mutes its flavor, which is why banana bread rarely tastes as intense as the batter. By doctoring our favorite recipe with eugenol-rich spices, like cloves and nutmeg, we can mitigate some of that loss. When it's done with finesse, the result isn't a particularly spicy loaf, but one that seems more banana-y. In my experience, an eighth of a teaspoon of grated nutmeg and just shy of a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves for every four ounces of banana is perfect.

Step 8: Make a Banana Chantilly

Look. Nobody's gonna complain about a warm slice of banana bread topped with butter, but trade it for a generous smear of banana chantilly and folks will straight-up break into song. Just toss some sugar and freeze-dried bananas into a food processor, grind until powdery, then finish with cream.

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I've got the exact recipe spelled out here, but for a banana bread topping, be sure to pulse the cream a few extra times to create an even thicker, butter-like spread with a rich banana flavor. (Just don't process it for too long, or you'll wind up with a curdled mess.)

The final thing you can use to step up your banana bread game isn't an ingredient but a technique: Test for doneness with a digital thermometer.

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The deep golden color of the crust won't change much after the loaf has baked for an hour, making it hard to track its progress. And while there's nothing wrong with the old jab-it-with-a-toothpick test, a digital thermometer provides a far more objective frame of reference.

Sure, the internal temperature that produces the texture you like best may not be the same as mine (I'm fond of how banana bread turns out at 206°F), but at least you'll never be stuck wondering if your loaf is done or not.

So, whether your bananas are golden yellow or still just a little green, what are you waiting for? It's time to bake up America's favorite loaf.