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Although a banana and plantain are related foods, the former is sweet and usually eaten raw as a fruit, while the latter is starchy until ripe and cooked or processed as a vegetable. Plantains are similar in appearance to green bananas, but they are longer, with thicker, leathery skins that blacken when ripe. Unlike the soft and yellow bananas that are often simply peeled and eaten raw, plantains are always cooked before eating, either in soups and stews or sauteed or fried. Plantains are a staple of Caribbean and western African cuisines and have slightly yellow or pink flesh.
The main difference between a banana and a plantain is how they are consumed. While both are available in the produce section of most supermarkets, the banana is usually only eaten raw when it is ripe. A ripe banana is soft with a bright yellow skin that is peeled away before eating. Owing to its sweetness and soft texture, a banana is sometimes referred to as a dessert banana. Bananas are common ingredients in pies and cakes as flavoring and in smoothies as a thickening agent.
In contrast to the dessert banana, a plantain is denser and starchier and is often cooked and eaten in ways similar to potatoes. Plantains are longer than bananas, with green, thick skins. A ripe plantain will have black skin and a sweeter flavor but still feel somewhat firm. A banana and plantain will both ripen off the plant at room temperature. Unripe bananas can be used instead of plantains in many recipes given that they will cook similarly.
Plantains are sold at different stages of ripeness, each with its own associated culinary use. A well-cooked green plantain will be golden and slightly tender, while a ripe plantain is done when caramelized. A very firm and green plantain can be used to thicken soups and stews. When a plantain just starts to turn yellow, it can be made into tostones, thick and flat fried chips often served with hot sauce or salsa. A very ripe plantain will have blackened skin and can be sauteed or fried and flavored with lime juice and salt.
Different peeling and preparation methods are required for a banana and plantain. Peeling a banana only involves snapping the stem and pulling off the skin. Peeling a plantain is more complicated. The ends are cut off and the plantain is then cut into chunks. The skin is then removed from each chunk with a paring knife, a process facilitated by first making shallow slits.
A banana and plantain have similar nutritional content. A raw plantain has only about 5 calories from fat and is low in cholesterol and sodium. Similarly, a raw banana contains around 6 calories from fat. Bananas and plantains are very good sources of vitamin C, vitamin B6, and manganese. Both a banana and plantain enrich a person’s diet with dietary fiber, potassium, and essential vitamins.