There are more than 500 types of bananas, although only a few make it to the market. By far the most common banana in the United States is the Cavendish, though it is certainly never labeled as such. A growing number of markets also sell so-called “finger bananas”—an umbrella term for a variety of small bananas.
Baby (Niño) Bananas: These short, chubby bananas, sometimes sold as Lady Finger bananas, average 3 inches in length. When ripe, the skin is bright yellow. They are very sweet and creamy.
Burro Bananas: Squatty and slightly square at the edges, these bananas are slightly tangy and lemony. When ripe, the fruit is soft and the skin is yellow with black spots. Also called Horse, Hog, or Orinoco bananas.
Cavendish Bananas: This is the familiar yellow banana sold in United States’ supermarkets. There are also other sizes of Cavendish, including Dwarf and Giant, though they are difficult to find.
Ice Cream (Blue Java) Bananas: These rather chubby bananas can grow to up to 7 inches long. The skin is a blotchy, silvery-blue and the flesh is creamy white. The flavor is somewhat like rich ice cream.
Manzano Bananas: Also called apple bananas, these short chubby bananas have a mild flavor reminiscent of apples (and some say strawberries). The skin turns black when fully ripe.
Red Bananas: These sweet bananas have purple or maroon skin when ripe. Their flesh is creamy white tinged with pink or orange.
Plantains: Plantains belong to the same plant family as bananas, but they have high starch content, and are cooked and served like a vegetable. When allowed to ripen, some varieties of plantain go through the same color changes as bananas, but they won’t become as sweet.
Nutritionally, plantains are similar to bananas. They are a good source of potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. Surprisingly, plantains also contain beta carotene (unusual in a non-colorful fruit), with one-half cup cooked containing enough to provide 5 percent of the RDA for vitamin A—compared with 1 percent in the same amount of raw bananas.
You can use plantains as you would potatoes—either as a side dish or as an addition to soups and stews. Traditionally, plantains are fried, but this method will increase their fat content considerably. Instead, try baking green plantains in their skins—first, trim off the tips, slit the skin lengthwise, then bake in a 375° oven until a fork will easily pierce the flesh (about 40 minutes). Or, add peeled, sliced plantains to stir-fries.