Don’t throw out those soft, over-ripe bananas. You might not want to look, peel and actually eat them, but if they aren’t too far gone, you can turn them into a wonderful, easy to make treat–banana bread. The banana’s origins are thought to come from Southeast Asia; the Greeks knew about the banana plant and Pliny wrote about bananas in 77 A.D. Non-leavened breads go back as far as 7,000 years, so a combination of bananas and bread could be very old, although there is no written proof of this early of a connection.
Banana bread is a quick bread whose main ingredient is mashed bananas. Ripe or overly ripe bananas are ideal to use in banana bread because the riper a banana becomes, the sweeter it gets. The mashed bananas are mixed into a batter of flour, eggs, sugar, and baking powder, and then baked. Variations of banana bread can include ingredients such as chopped nuts, dried or candied fruit, chocolate chips, and practically any other ingredient that excites the cook’s taste buds.
The term “pearlash,” refers to potassium carbonate, which was used to chemically leaven breads in the late 1700s, a process which led to the making of quick breads. Prior to the use of pearlash, breads needed to be leavened by the use of yeast or something containing yeast, such as beer. This was not a fast process because it takes time for the yeast to grow. With the discovery of pearlash, a cook could make bread faster because the potassium carbonate did the work of the yeast.
Baking powder, which was introduced in the mid 1800’s, replaced pearlash as a chemical leavening agent allowing the making of quick breads easy for all cooks. Baking powder, which is actually sodium bicarbonate, releases carbon dioxide during the leavening process. British inventor Alfred Bird found that by adding a mild acid such as cream of tartar to baking soda he could make a stable product that would leaven during the baking process.
The actual word banana comes from the Arabic word “banan” which means finger. Bananas were first found in Malasia and migrated, with the help of travelers and traders, to India. The banana is mentioned in Buddhist writings as far back as the sixth century B.C. Alexander the Great is said to have introduced the banana to Western civilization. Islamic slave traders as far back as 650 A.D. traded bananas as well as slaves from their African travels. From the west coast of Africa and banana plantations on the Canary Islands, Portuguese sailors brought banana plants to Santa Domingo in the Caribbean. Bananas were thought to become popular in the United States during the 1876 centennial celebration, where they were wrapped in foil and sold for a dime.
Banana bread history
Banana bread did not become a popular treat until the 1930s. Its popularity coincides with the acceptance of baking powder by housewives as a fast leavening ingredient for quick breads. Banana bread enjoyed a resurgence in the 1960’s when many cookbooks included many variations for banana bread recipes. Banana bread is so important to Australia that February 23rd of every year is set aside as National Banana Bread Day.
References and ResourcesKiple, Kenneth F. The Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge University Press 2000.
Hensperger, Beth. The Art of Quick Breads. Chronicle 1994.