Friday, October 30, 2015

Banana bread taste tests


The second annual Durham County Pottery Tour is just two weeks away, so I should be posting more pictures of pots in progress; and Hallowe'en is tomorrow, so I could be posting videos of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which I'll be playing on Sunday (on a much smaller organ)--but instead, I'm writing a post that gives the impression that I have a lot of free time for baking. Trust me, it's less about baking and more about being obsessively methodical. But who knows; now that I have found The Best and Easiest Banana Bread recipe, maybe I'll bake some for the pottery tour. Nov. 14-15, folks; hope to see you there!


In early September, at work, I ate a slice of homemade banana bread that was (by my personal banana-bread standards) perfect: dense and moist, with a strong banana flavor, without being too sweet, and visually pretty with flecks of banana seeds throughout. Unfortunately, I didn't think to ask the baker for the recipe. But a week or so later, with bananas ripening on my kitchen counter, I did the next best thing: I sent a post out on Facebook asking friends to recommend recipes. Several recipes came in, each surprisingly different from the next. Seeking to establish a long-term banana-bread recipe relationship, I decided some taste tests were in order.

The gory details, part 1:

Oct. 1, 2015: The experiment began. I tested three recipes: R1, R2 (see below), and R3. When recipes had noticeably different flavorings (e.g. cinnamon, nuts, no vanilla), I left the spices and nuts out and added vanilla, so that we could compare texture and banana flavor without distractions.

I mashed 9.5 limp, brown, overripe bananas into ~3.5 cups of pulp. I used one cup of bananas in both R1 and R2, which called for 2-3 bananas and 1 cup bananas respectively. I used 1.5 cups of bananas in R3, which called for 4 bananas.

R1 called for 1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on desired sweetness; one recommender said she routinely uses 1/2 cup, supplemented with chocolate chips, so that's what I used. For fair comparison, that meant adding chocolate chips to R2 and R3. This could have gotten in the way of the taste test, but who (except my mother) doesn't like chocolate chips? They were a good addition; 1/3 cup went into each recipe.

None of the recipes was complicated to make, although R1 was definitely the easiest (see discussion below); and because R1 made a noticeably smaller quantity of batter, it baked faster and more evenly, with a softer exterior.

After letting the three banana breads cool, we had a family taste test. E preferred the texture of R2 and R3 over R1 because he likes a softer, springier bread; S and I preferred the denser, moister texture of R1. Regarding flavor, R1 had the strongest banana flavor; R2 was less intensely banana flavored; and R3 had a strong banana flavor but a surprising baking-powder or -soda aftertaste. (R2 contained baking powder as well, without the aftertaste; R1 used baking soda, with no aftertaste). S immediately voted R1 his favorite; E decided flavor outranked texture and went for R1 too; and I also preferred R1.

R2 and R3 improved with age. The next day, three friends across the street tasted slices of each bread; all three tasters preferred R1.

The winner, part 1: R1, unanimously (6 tasters).

The gory details, part 2

Oct. 25, 2015: The experiment continued. I tested three recipes: R4 (see below), R5, and R6. Where recipes had noticeably different flavorings (e.g. lemon rind, nuts, dried apricots, no vanilla), I left the additions out but included vanilla, so we could compare texture and banana flavor without distractions. The exception was unsweetened coconut in R5; I left it in because the source text said "the coconut in this adds a certain something, but it's not an overpowering coconut flavor. Don't leave it out, but don't expect a tropical tasting bread, either."

I mashed 9 just-beyond-ripe but not overripe bananas into 4 cups pulp--half a cup more than before with half a banana less. The consistency was visibly starchier than with the overripe bananas, although this didn't have an obvious effect on the results. I used ~1.3 cups of bananas in each recipe; R4 called for 1-1.25 cups pulp--the only recipe to acknowledge that bananas are imprecise units of measurement--while R5 called for 3 bananas and R6 called for 2-3. Interestingly, R4 called for 1-2 eggs, perhaps hearkening back to days of yore when backyard chickens laid eggs of varied sizes. I used one large egg.

As in part 1 above, I added 1/3 cup chocolate chips to each recipe.

None of the recipes was complicated to make, although R6 was definitely the easiest (see discussion below); and because it made a noticeably smaller quantity of batter, it baked faster and more evenly, with a softer exterior.

I took samples of all three breads to a block party and asked tasters to rank them. I assigned 3 points to first place, 2 points to second place, and 1 point to third place. All three recipes received rankings in first, second, and third place, although R6, and only R6, was listed by itself twice. R4 received 25 votes, R5 26, and R6 39, making R6 the clear winner.

The winner, part 2: R6 (clear but not unanimously, ~20 tasters).

Discussion and areas for future research

The next logical step would be to compare R1 and R6. Conveniently, R1 and R6 were the same recipe, so that's already taken care of.

That leaves but one to-do: comparing R1=R6 with the holy grail of taste tests, the Cook's Illustrated recipe. Unfortunately, this would require microwaving 5 ripe bananas, saving the liquid, boiling it down into banana essence, and adding it and the nuked bananas to the bread, then thinly slicing a sixth banana to adorn the top, and sprinkling it with sugar to caramelize it in the oven. Compared to R1=R6--which is not only the tastiest but the easiest of the recipes I tried--nuking and boiling and slicing and adorning sound like a hassle. A friend who has made the Cook's Illustrated recipe reports that "I can definitely say it is delicious, but not definitely say it is worth the extra effort." (For better or worse, he adds, "you should try it at least once.")

So what makes R1=R6 the easiest recipe? No room-temperature butter to cream. No waiting for fridge-cold butter to arrive at room temperature, and no nuking frozen butter, partially melting it in an attempt to get it to arrive at soft room temperature so that it can be creamed. Nope. R1=R6 calls for melted butter--and just 1/3 cup of it. No creaming necessary.

Interestingly, two friends recommended the Joy of Cooking recipe, one via a website and the other a book. The recipes differed. The website recipe is here; the cookbook recipe (R4) is below.


Easiest to make and tastiest to eat, R1=R6 is the recipe I'll use from now on.

Appendix: Recipes

R1=R6: The winner in both taste tests,

2-3 very ripe bananas, peeled
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 to 1 cup of sugar (can easily use 3/4 cup, or drop it down to 1/2 cup if you want it less sweet) [I used 1/2 cup sugar--Ed.]
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C), and butter a 4x8-inch loaf pan. In a mixing bowl, mash the ripe bananas with a fork until smooth. Stir the melted butter into the mashed bananas. Mix in the baking soda and salt. Stir in the sugar, beaten egg, and vanilla extract. Mix in the flour. Pour the batter into your prepared loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes (check at 50 minutes) at 350°F (175°C), or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack. Remove the banana bread from the pan. Slice and serve. (A bread knife helps to make slices that aren't crumbly.)

R2: a friend's uncle's recipe, adapted from a James Beard recipe

350 degree oven, greased loaf pan
3/4 c sugar
1/2 c butter
1/3 c sour milk or buttermilk*
1 c mashed bananas
2 eggs
 2 c flour
1 t soda
1/2 t salt
1/2 c chopped nuts or choc. chips or whatever strikes your fancy
*sour milk could be milk + 1t lemon juice. Let sit for 15 mins or so until curdled.

Cream together sugar and butter. Add the rest of wet ingredients. Stir together dry ingredients. Combine everything and pour into prepared pan(s). Bake for about an hour.

R3: adapted from The Foster's Market Cookbook

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

To be creamed together:
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar

Wet ingredients: 
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 very ripe bananas, crushed
1 teaspoons vanilla extract

Optional: 1 cup chopped walnuts

Oven preheated to 350, grease a 9x5 loaf pan

Combine the dry ingredients and stir. Cream together the butter and sugar until blended, add the beaten egg slowly while you continue to beat and finally add the bananas and vanilla and stir to combine. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring only enough to combine. Be careful not to overmix or your bread with be tough. Fold in the walnuts. Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake for between 1 hour and 1:15 until it passes the toothpick test and the bread is brown and a bit cracked on top. Let the bread rest for 10-15 minutes before taking it out of the pan.

R4: abbreviated from The Joy of Cooking (1975)

Mix dry ingredients:
1 3/4 c. flour
2 1/4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt

1/3 c. shortening [I used butter--Ed.]
2/3 c. sugar

3/4 t. lemon rind
1-2 eggs
1 1/4 c. banana pulp
Optional: 1/2 c. nuts, 1/4 c. chopped dried apricots

Bake at 350 in greased loaf pan for 60 minutes.

R5: from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

1 stick butter
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour [OK, I confess--I just used 2 c. white flour--Ed.]
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1/2 cup grated dried unsweetened coconut

Oven preheated to 350 F, grease a 9x5" loaf pan.

Mix together the dry ingredients and cream the butter. Beat the eggs and bananas into the butter, then stir this mixture into the dry ingredients. Finally, stir in the vanilla, the nuts if you're using them, and the coconut. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for around 1 hour, but start checking earlier at about 45 minutes, until it passes the toothpick test.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Zigzag evolution

Not sure why it took so long to go from this... this...

...but I'm enjoying the evolution.