Banana bread should be moist, sweet and full of banana flavour, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Sometimes every batch seems different, even with the same recipe. Understanding the foundations of moist banana bread will help you get it right every time.
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Banana bread is so much more than a great way to use up leftover overripe bananas. It’s a delicious sweet treat, or a filling breakfast. And the smell of a toasted slice is irresistible! Because it’s so good, and so versatile, there are oodles of recipes out there, many claiming to be the moistest banana bread ever, and each with different ratios of banana, butter, flour and more. So how do you choose one?
To help make sense of it all, I’ve compared twenty recipes for banana bread. I’ve found out what’s popular, and what’s not, for creating a really moist banana bread. So whether you’re looking for a recipe, or planning on tweaking your own, my review should help you figure it out.
What do you need for banana bread?
Baking tends to be more of a science than many other types of cooking. Some ingredients are all but non-negotiable for success. As a result, there are six ingredients that all twenty recipes include:
- Some sort of fat
- A chemical leavener
Beyond these fundamentals, there are two other ingredients that appear in all but two or three of the recipes – salt, and vanilla. There are also a number of other ingredients used less frequently, some for taste and some for texture, which I’ll touch on as well.
3 Banana Banana Bread
Given that most of the recipes are for a banana bread made with three bananas, it makes sense to look at the ratios of other ingredients this way too. So as we go through, I’ll highlight amounts based on the use of three bananas. This may be a little clunky with some ingredients, like eggs, but it’ll give the best sense of the most common approach.
If you prefer a more accurate measure for your bananas, a few authors offer both the number of bananas and the number of cups of banana. On average they equate three bananas to about one cup of mashed banana. And as you’ll see further on, it can be important.
Most authors recommend ripe, very ripe or even over-ripe bananas for your bread. This is because bananas (and most fruits) get sweeter as they ripen. The fibre in the banana is breaking down into simpler sugars, which are sweeter to taste and more digestible. The most common description of a bread-ready banana is one that is deeply yellow with lots of brown spots on the skin. Some even suggest there should be more brown than yellow, or no yellow at all.
This point is so important that some authors give advice for accelerating the ripening of your bananas if they’re not ready. In fact, Jen from Baked by an Introvert does this as a matter of course in her recipe. Her first step is baking the whole bananas to really ripen them up.
The ratio of flour to wet ingredients is a key factor in a moist banana bread. Too much flour and your bread will be too dry. Too little and it’ll be soggy and wet.
All of the recipes call for all-purpose/plain flour, and for a three banana bread twelve authors use between one-and-a-quarter and one-and-a-half cups. Another five use two cups of flour, but most of these add another ingredient like sour cream, or use more sugar or eggs, any of which will help offset the additional flour.
And as Holly from Spend with Pennies points out, make sure you measure out your flour correctly. Scooping it up directly into your cup measure forces more into the cup. Do this and you’ll end up with more flour than the recipe intends.
The recipes all include a reasonable amount of white sugar, brown sugar or both. Sugar is not just important for sweetness. It also traps water in the bread, helping keep it moist.
White sugar is overwhelmingly preferred, appearing in sixteen recipes, including thirteen times on it’s own.
Seven recipes use either some brown sugar, or only brown sugar. This will be a bit different to white sugar for a few reasons:
- Taste. A couple of these authors comment they like the caramel note the darker sugar provides.
- Brown sugar is a little moister than white, so will contribute a small amount of water to the batter.
- Brown sugar is also a little acidic, which assists leavening (rising), but we’ll come to this in more detail a bit further on.
How much sugar?
Based on making bread with three bananas, the most popular amount of sugar is three-quarters to one cup. Several use a bit less than this, but every recipe uses more than half-a-cup.
If you have a particularly sweet tooth, a couple of recipes use a bit more than a cup, and one, from Jessica at A Farm Girl’s Kitchen, uses more than two cups for her three banana mixture. To be fair though, her mixture is quite different from the others, containing significantly more flour and egg as well. On balance, Jessica’s bread ratios are similar, just with less banana than the other recipes.
Eggs play a number of important roles in baking. In banana bread, they’re helping with structure, consistency, colour and flavour. They’re also largely water, so they add moisture as well.
For a three banana mixture, there’s no clear favourite for how many eggs to use. Two eggs is just barely the most common, in seven recipes, but another six use just one egg for a three banana bread. And four more equate to one-and-a-half eggs. Looking at the number of eggs per cup of flour doesn’t solve the problem either, with one per cup just winning in eight recipes.
What do we take from all of this? While baking is a bit of a science, it’s rarely an exact one. If these overwhelmingly well-reviewed recipes teach us anything, it’s that you have a bit of latitude in how many eggs you use. You definitely need at least one, but two will work just as well.
Butter is by far the most popular fat used in the recipes, appearing seventeen times. Of the other three recipes, two use vegetable oil and one uses mayonnaise, so if you want to make your banana bread without butter, you have a few options. I’ve listed the three no-butter banana bread recipes separately at the bottom if you’re interested.
As for making a three banana bread mixture, thirteen recipes use a third to half a cup of fat, whether they’re made with butter, vegetable oil or mayonnaise.
If you haven’t come across the term before, leavening refers to the process of causing a dough or batter to aerate and rise by creating gas bubbles inside it. Without this process, banana bread would be dramatically more dense and stodgy, not to mention not as tall in the pan.
A “quick bread”, like banana bread, is a baked good that is leavened with a chemical agent rather than a biological one such as yeast. And so all of the recipes contain at least one chemical leavener, and several contain two.
Baking soda is by far the more popular, included in all but one of the twenty recipes. Seven of these recipes also use baking powder, and one uses baking powder alone.
Baking soda vs. Baking powder
If you’ve done any baking you’ve almost certainly come across one or both of these ingredients before. While they are similar, they have important differences.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. It’s also known as bicarbonate of soda, hence the name baking soda. This powdered ingredient is a base (the opposite of an acid). On it’s own in a liquid or any fairly neutral pH mixture it won’t do anything, apart from add a bit of a metallic or soapy taste. But when it’s combined with an acid, it produces carbon dioxide. Inside your banana bread, these bubbles expand and rise, lifting (leavening) the bread. And during this process both the acid and the baking soda are neutralised, removing their respective flavours (acids tend to be a bit tart or bitter). The key here is that the acid needs to be added separately, which is the main difference between baking soda and baking powder.
Baking powder also contains sodium bicarbonate, but in addition it contains an acid, usually tartaric acid (available separately as cream of tartar). Because baking powder contains both the acid and the base, when it is exposed to water, it can produce carbon dioxide, and therefore leavening, on its own.
Sally has a great overview of baking soda and baking powder on Sally’s Baking Addiction if you’re interested.
As we’ve seen, baking soda is the more popular choice by far amongst these recipes, which begs the question – where does the acid come from?
Acidic leavening ingredients
There are a number of ingredients used amongst these recipes that will provide the acidity needed to activate baking soda:
- As already mentioned, seven recipes also include baking powder, which contains tartaric acid.
- Seven recipes include either sour cream, buttermilk or plain yogurt, all of which are acidic (hence the tart taste).
- Because of the inclusion of molasses in brown sugar, it is slightly acidic, and as we’ve seen is used in seven recipes.
- One of Holly’s recipes on Spend with Pennies contains mayonnaise. A key ingredient in mayo is vinegar, which is a mild acid.
Five of the recipes however include no obvious acid to activate their baking soda. In fact, bananas are acidic (like most fruit), and so can provide enough acidity to activate the leavener. It’s worth noting though that the pH of bananas rises (become less acidic) as they ripen, so overripe bananas will deliver less leavening than less ripe ones. This could create a bit of variability in the outcome of these recipes, although they clearly work well for the authors.
How much baking soda or powder?
There’s a commonly quoted ratio for the use of these ingredients. For one cup of flour, you’d traditionally use either a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda or a whole teaspoon of baking powder.
Most of these recipes use more than that though. The main reason for this is that the ingredients in banana bread are notably heavier than those in a normal bread or cake. So you require additional leavening to both lift and support the relatively heavy banana.
On average there’s half to three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour in these recipes. And as mentioned, some authors add baking powder as well for additional lift.
Salt isn’t just important for taste. It also strengthens the gluten in the flour, allowing the bread to expand further without tearing. You don’t want too much though because that could toughen the texture of your bread.
On average the majority of authors add half a teaspoon of salt for a 3-banana bread.
Vanilla is easily the favourite flavouring to add to banana bread, being used by seventeen of the twenty authors. And for a three banana mix, a teaspoon of extract is the preferred amount.
As I touched on earlier, there are a few other ingredients the authors add to their mixtures:
- Sour/tart dairy. As mentioned briefly above, seven authors add sour cream, buttermilk or plain yogurt. I say “add” because these ingredients are not used to replace butter or other ingredients. They are added for flavour and moisture, and as we’ve already seen, they’ll help with leavening. Plus their acidity tenderises gluten, helping create a softer texture. They’re not used in large amounts, typically only a quarter to half a cup.
- Nuts are a popular addition, with ten recipes either including them or proposing them as an optional ingredient. Walnuts are the most popular, with pecans not far behind. A third to half a cup of chopped nuts are typically used.
- Nine authors add some familiar spices to their banana bread. All nine add up to a teaspoon of cinnamon, and three of these complement it with a quarter-teaspoon of nutmeg. Cloves make one appearance as well.
- Karen at The Food Charlatan replaces half-a-cup of flour with the same amount of oats blitzed to a powder in a food processor. She adds these for the nutty flavour.
- Bee from Rasa Malaysia suggests two tablespoons of rum as an optional ingredient. Liking the sound of this! A couple of readers on other recipes comment that they add rum to their as well.
Making banana bread batter
There’s a lot of variation in how the authors bring their batter together. Some follow a very simple process while others have decidedly complex processes with multiple steps. Overall though, most of them roughly follow the standard approach to making a quick bread batter:
- Mix together the wet ingredients.
- Mix together the dry ingredients.
- Gently combine the two mixtures.
This last point is clearly important, because most of the authors strongly advise being gentle with your batter. This is not referring just how you handle it, but also how much, meaning make sure you don’t overmix it. The more you work the batter, the more the gluten develops, creating a more dense texture.
Baking your banana bread
More than almost any other dish I’ve reviewed so far, there’s strong agreement on the right oven temperature for banana bread. Eighteen authors cook theirs at 350°F/180°C. The other two aren’t far off at 325°F/165°C.
Being a dense batter and a deep loaf, the baking times are quite long. There’s quite a range as well, with suggested times varying from as little as forty minutes to as much an hour and fifteen minutes. And even though most of authors provide fairly narrow recommended ranges, typically five or ten minutes wide, many mention much wider variance when replying to readers. In fact, one of the most common issues raised by readers is cooking time, with a number commenting their banana bread was either undercooked, or turned out too firm and dry. The authors identify a few possible causes of these problems.
Every oven is different. While large industrial ovens are most likely perfectly calibrated, consumer ovens are not always so.
Because I come across this issue so often when I’m reading all the recipes for my reviews, I thought I’d check my own oven. I occasionally find foods take a little longer than expected, so I bought this inexpensive oven thermometer to try. It’s not a fancy one, but I just wanted to get an indication of how my oven measured up. And apart from discovering that I really badly needed to clean my oven door glass, I learnt something interesting about my oven’s performance too.
At the time of writing this my oven was less than a year old, and a highly reputable and well-regarded brand. Even so, my oven is regularly 5-10°C cooler than it should be after up to an hour of heating time. And when I heat it with the rapid heat function, it can be as much as 50°C below where it should be when it first announces it’s reached the right temperature! Don’t get me wrong, my oven actually bakes and roasts really well, but I often find I need just a little longer than a recipe recommends, and now I know why (and can plan accordingly). It’s worth trying with your own oven, especially if it’s an older model.
Variation in bananas
Baking ingredients like flour and butter are typically very similar, no matter where you live. But bananas, being a fruit, come with enormous variation.
As an example, a number of the recipes call for a certain number of medium bananas, but that’s obviously open to both interpretation and variation. Bananas that are larger than those used by the author will take longer to cook, and smaller ones will cook more quickly.
The level of ripeness will also impact cooking time. Bananas change quite dramatically as they ripen. Firmer, starchier bananas will cook differently to very ripe soft bananas.
Ingredient substitutions and variations
Many, many readers comment how they’ve swapped out ingredients, or left them out, or added others. For most there’s no problem, but the point is these sorts of changes will also impact cooking time compared with the author’s expectation in the recipe. Especially if you’re adding or removing ingredients with much liquid in them.
Michelle from Love Mischka makes an important point about loaf pan size. Some of these recipes use an 8.5″ x 4.5″ pan (about 21.5 x 11.5cm) and some use a 9″ x 5″ pan (about 23 x 12.5cm). As Michelle points out, this doesn’t sound like much, but is actually a 15% difference in volume. This will significantly alter the depth of the batter in the pan, which in turn will significantly impact cooking time. So if you’re using a slightly different-sized pan to the one the author of your chosen recipe uses, be sure to alter your cooking time expectations accordingly.
How to know when your banana bread is done
Because of all of these variables, most of the authors recommend testing if your bread is done with the toothpick test. This simply involves inserting a toothpick or skewer into the middle of the loaf and pulling it slowly out. If it comes out clean, or with just a few damp crumbs on it, your banana bread is done. If it comes out with any wet batter on it, your bread needs more time in the oven. Pop it back in for five to ten minutes and test it again.
The good news is, you can just keep baking it until it’s done. If it’s starting to get too brown, you can cover it with foil.
The keys to moist banana bread
As you can see, there are a number of factors influencing how moist your banana bread turns out. To get the best results, pay attention to the following:
- Use very ripe or overripe bananas. Their water content increases a little as they ripen. The sugar content also increases, and sugar is good at hanging on to water in baked goods.
- Measure your flour out correctly by using a spoon or small scoop to drop it into your cup measure. This way you won’t get too much. Too much flour leads to dry banana bread.
- While it’s tempting to cut back on the sugar to make it a bit healthier, again, sugar holds onto moisture. Cutting it back will cut back the moisture content too.
- Consider adding a little sour cream or buttermilk, or choosing a recipe that includes one of these. They add moisture, help with leavening and soften the texture. I’ve listed these recipes separately at the bottom of the page if you’re interested in giving one a try.
- Don’t overwork the batter. While the fats will slow down gluten formation, the more you work it, the more gluten you’ll form. And too much gluten will toughen up your banana bread, making it feel less moist.
- Don’t overcook it. The longer it cooks, the more moisture it will lose. Check it for doneness with a toothpick before you expect it to be done. You can always cook it longer, but once it’s overdone, it’s overdone.
Keeping it moist
You should also think about how you store it once it’s cooked. Sliced banana bread will naturally lose moisture to dehydration much more quickly than a whole loaf. Even if you don’t slice it, make sure you wrap it tightly in plastic wrap or store it in a good air-tight container that’s not much bigger than the loaf or the slice. Alternatively, freeze it straight away to lock the moisture in.
Also, keep in mind that if you store it in the refrigerator, it will be firmer and less moist when it’s cold. This is because butterfat quickly firms up at lower temperatures. So make sure you let it come up to room temperature if you’re not going to warm or toast it. Alternatively, try one of the vegetable oil recipes. Vegetable oil doesn’t harden up in the fridge like butter does.
Don’t go overboard
You definitely want moist banana bread, but you need to be careful not to go overboard on any of the tips above. Too many bananas, or too little flour, or too much sour cream, and you’ll end up with a wet, soggy banana bread. Not great either!
Freezing cooked banana bread
Banana bread freezes well either sliced or whole. The authors’ recommendations on storage time in the freezer vary from a month to six months, but most suggest three months is about the right amount of time. And after this the issue is more likely to be quality than food safety.
Several of the authors also offer advice on freezing overripe bananas, so they don’t go to waste and you always have some on hand. Just a heads up though – you should freeze them peeled, and they look pretty awful! But they still taste great.
Variations and substitutions
Several authors provide advice for making your banana bread into muffins instead of a loaf. The baking time will be much shorter (typically 20-30 minutes) and you’ll have nice little single serve banana breads.
Beyond that, many of the authors provide some great substitutions and variations with their recipes. Some particularly interesting ones are:
- Add some chocolate chips or dried fruit, like raisins.
- Replace eggs with unsweetened applesauce.
- If the recipe calls for one of these, sour cream, Greek yogurt, buttermilk and plain yogurt are all interchangeable.
- Add some shredded zucchini (but make sure you squeeze the excess moisture out).
- Make a Streusel topping.
Or maybe do as Sue at The View from Great Island does, and add a cream cheese frosting to your banana bread for an extra-decadent treat.
The essence of banana bread
If you want to bake a moist 3-banana banana bread, the most popular approach contains the following:
- Three VERY ripe or over-ripe medium bananas. That’s about one cup of mashed banana.
- One-and-a-half cups of all-purpose/plain flour.
- One cup of white sugar.
- Two eggs.
- Half a cup of butter.
- A teaspoon of baking soda.
- A teaspoon of vanilla extract.
- Half a teaspoon of salt.
Putting your batter together is fairly straightforward:
- Sift and mix together your dry ingredients.
- Mix together your wet ingredients.
- Gently fold the two mixtures together until they are just combined.
Then, bake your banana bread in a 350°F/180°C oven until it’s done. Start checking it with a toothpick after forty minutes to make sure you don’t overcook it.
So there you have it – the essence of banana bread. Hopefully this has helped you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.
Recipes included in this review
Banana breads made with butter
Vegetable oil (no butter) banana breads
These recipes use oil or mayonnaise (which is made from oil) instead of butter.