A short history of banana bread: the surprise ingredient (not bananas) that started it all

The most searched-for bread recipe online isn’t white sandwich bread. It’s not whole wheat bread, or baguettes or no-knead bread or even anything with yeast in it. No, the most sought-after bread recipe across America is (drum roll, please): banana bread.

The history of banana bread reveals a startling fact: its birth wasn't all about bananas. Click To Tweet

Bananas aren’t native to most of North America, and were only sparingly available in the U.S. throughout the 1800s. Ship captains had difficulty solving the puzzle of how to successfully transport a fruit that ripened (and rotted) so quickly.

But the advent of refrigeration at the turn of the 20th century soon made bananas accessible to American households nationwide, where they quickly became a breakfast staple. Bananas were also used in desserts, though more often as a garnish atop cake or pudding than a main ingredient.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflourThen, in the 1930s, two events converged that elevated the banana from bit player to star.

First, the Great Depression, which began with the 1929 stock market crash and lasted throughout much of the 1930s, made every scrap of food precious. Households were unwilling to throw away anything — even a “rotten” banana.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

And second, Royal and other baking powder/baking soda manufacturers began mass producing their products, making these chemical leaveners widely available nationwide for the first time.

Thus the desire to use overripe bananas, paired with the ready availability of baking powder, inspired a horde of enterprising cookbook writers to come up with recipes for banana “quick bread” (as opposed to yeast bread).

By the early 1930s, banana bread recipes — using mashed bananas as the main ingredient, rather than banana slices as a garnish — had become ubiquitous, appearing in cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens, Pillsbury Flour, the United Fruit Company (a chief banana importer), and more.

In honor of National Banana Bread Day (February 23), I recently decided to examine the history of banana bread. In doing so, I baked nine decades of American banana bread recipes, starting with a 1930s cookbook recipe and ending with our current King Arthur Flour Banana Bread online.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

And what did I discover on this sweet journey? Banana bread recipes down the decades have in common bananas, sweetener, a chemical leavener, some fat, and flour. But beyond that they can differ wildly — offering everything from a sprinkle of sesame seeds or dollop of apricot jam to a big hit of wheat bran or a grating of orange peel.

Additionally, each recipe reflects its era in some way, from Depression-era ’30s thrift to back-to-the-land ’60s.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1930s: The Depression

Banana-Nut Bread from 1930’s “My New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book” yields a somewhat rough-textured loaf — due mainly to the full cup of wheat bran, an inexpensive bulk filler, added to the batter.

Reflecting the financial hardships encountered by many families, the loaf is lower in fat and sugar than most current recipes, as well as smaller — but its banana flavor is quite pronounced, unlike that of some of its successors.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1940s: World War II

Banana Bread from the 1946 edition of “The Joy of Cooking” is a salute to wartime rationing: using a single egg, no spices, and sour milk or buttermilk (both less expensive and easier to come by than fresh whole milk), the loaf is fine-textured and tasty — but plain. Like most dishes during the era, it was meant to fill stomachs, not engage the imagination.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1950s: Birth of the boomers

The 1950s was an era of growth in America. Soldiers, many having gone to college on the G.I. Bill, married, got good jobs, and started families — often large families.

Stay-at-home moms were the norm, and they flocked to “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” a 1956 salute to convenience cooking and baking. Banana-Nut Loaf, a large and lofty bread, definitely feeds a crowd. It’s low-fat, low-sugar, low-banana, and completely un-spiced. Easy, yes. But tasty? Not really.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1960s-1970s: Back to the land

By the mid-’60s, America was transitioning from Pat Boone to the Beatles. Boomers joined communes, protested the Vietnam War, and went “back to the land.” Banana Bread from the Moosewood Restaurant, a “collectively owned and worker-managed business” founded in 1972 in Ithaca, NY, is an extreme departure from earlier versions — just like the young generation coming into its own.

Scented with vanilla, almond, orange, nutmeg, and coffee, this recipe from “The Moosewood Cookbook” even calls for sprinkling sesame seeds into the loaf pan before adding the batter. The resulting flat-topped loaf is dark (from brown sugar), dense, moist — and very tasty. While it won’t win any beauty contests, this banana bread is one of my favorites.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1980s: Bold new flavors

The ’80s will be remembered for the mainstream embrace of “upscale ethnic” and bold flavors: pesto, quiche, sushi, and tiramisu all became household favorites during this decade. Boomers entered their 30s ready to entertain — and 1982’s “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (“Delicious recipes, menu, tips, lore from Manhattan’s celebrated gourmet food shop”) was on everyone’s shelf.

Surprisingly, Silver Palate’s Banana Bread doesn’t reflect the dash and excitement of most of its other recipes. Made with 50% whole wheat flour, it’s an unremarkable version (albeit rich; it uses an entire stick of butter) of what by then had become an American baking standby.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

1990s: Budding gourmets

Remember sun-dried tomatoes? How about truffles? Many Americans gravitated to the kitchen as the 20th century drew to a close, embracing food as creative expression. And our King Arthur Flour “Baking Sheet” print newsletter — precursor of our current online recipe site — was there throughout the decade, showcasing recipes both classic and innovative.

This cinnamon- and nutmeg-scented Banana Bread from the September-October, 1997 “Baking Sheet,” is an enormous loaf with well-balanced flavors and good, moist texture. It’s so rich that one reader reported using it as her wedding cake!

Want to check out the recipe? It’s in our King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion cookbook.

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

2000s-2010s: A healthy awareness

Let’s call the past 17 years or so the Decade of the Diet. Atkins and South Beach kicked things off in 2003, and since then our regimes of choice have ranged from Paleo to raw to gluten-free. We’re determined to eat better — but for the most part aren’t willing to give up food as pleasure.

Our current Banana Bread recipe online tones down our ’90s version (smaller size, fewer nuts); but also ramps it up by using a higher percentage of banana, and brown sugar, honey, and jam for enhanced moistness and flavor. In addition, a tip at the end tells you how much you can reduce the recipe’s sugar and still enjoy the result. Yes, you can have your lower-sugar banana bread — and enjoy it, too!

History of Banana Bread via @kingarthurflour

Three decades of banana bread: That’s the 1930 recipe (Better Homes and Gardens) at the top; 1946 recipe (Joy of Cooking) in the center, and 1956 (Betty Crocker) at the bottom.

Of all of these recipes, two in particular catch my fancy. One is Moosewood’s loaf, with its overtones of coffee, brown sugar, and vanilla. As noted earlier, it won’t win any beauty contests; but it’s dense, moist, and flavorful, perfect for slicing thin and perhaps spreading with a smear of cream cheese.

My other top choice is the Banana Bread recipe currently on our site (and pictured at the top of this post). Made with butter and brown sugar, honey, vanilla, a hint of spice, and lots of banana, it’s wonderful with a cup of coffee, or toasted with butter. Or made into French toast. I reduce the amount of sugar (as suggested in “tips,” at the bottom of the recipe), so the banana flavor really shines through. Less sugar also means fewer calories — an added benefit!

What’s your own favorite banana bread recipe? Share what you love about it, as well as the book (and decade) or site it’s from below, in comments.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Danielle Durand

    Thank you PJ for this article, very interesting that you put it in context during previous eras. I must say that I usually now always bake with KAF recipes, but last weekend my daughter baked a banana bread for her gender reveal party and really this bread was heaven, so smooth and moist. I just finished a piece with peanut butter on top and maple flakes… oh! So good! Mind you I just showeled snow, so I don’t feel too guilty. And it is true what Ricardo says, you don’t taste the coconut in the recipe… it is really something… here is the recipe: ricardocuisine.com/en/recipes/6085-ultra-moist-banana-bread.

    Reply
  2. Gwen Farley

    I make my grandmother’s banana bread from Mary Margaret McBride Encyclopedia of Food Volume 2 copyright 1958. My mom’s joke was banana bread was a way to spend $5 on ingredients to save 20 cents of bananas. Sometimes I add chocolate chips or add maple sugar on top.

    Reply
  3. CelesteCAT

    My favorite is slightly modified from Vincent Price’s Treasury of Great Recipes. Similar to the KAF one but denser, in a good way. Best when toasted, with cream cheese. Yum!

    Reply
  4. Ruth S.

    What a fascinating post! I just came upon it as I was about to make one of my favorite banana breads, Coconut and Macadamia Nut Banana Bread, a fabulous recipe from Ruth Reichl’s “The Gourmet Cookbook.” It’s a little long to reprint here, but it’s kind of a no-brainer to play up the tropical flavor of bananas by adding macadamia nuts and toasted coconut. I think a bit of chopped pineapple (dried, fresh or canned) and a drop of rum wouldn’t go amiss either! I’m also a huge fan of your “Baker’s Companion” recipe. I always make extra, bake in small loaves and vary my mix-ins, spices, flours and sugars. It’s never failed me.

    Reply
  5. Mary T. Morris

    I the 1980s I bought a large metal bundt pan, and a recipe book came with it. Inside was a recipe for banana-nut bread using all-bran. It was my go-to recipe while we were stationed throughout the Caribbean and we loved it. Dense like old-fashioned applesauce bread, with lots of banana, and toasted great. Somehow in moving, the recipe book and the old cookbook I kept it in got lost, and I have never found a recipe that would fill my bundt pan. Anyone out there have one?? I keep talking about it to my grand-kids and really, really miss making it ( & moreso eating/sharing it). Email me if you have one please. marytmorris@yahoo.com [I will share it, you can be sure!]

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Mary, while we don’t have the exact recipe you’re looking for, we do have a recipe for Banana Muffins that contains oat bran for texture, flavor, and nutrition. Check it out and see if you can use that as a place to start recreating the recipe you remember so fondly. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  6. Sheri

    I had some overripe bananas so made a batch tonight and started wondering how banana bread started. I had a notion of British colonists in tropical regions. The depression connection makes sense (but the leavening issue raises more questions for me as to how people did biscuits and such before!) although I wonder who was the first. As for chocolate chips, I am totally opposed to chocolate chips in banana bread, raisin cookies, muffins–basically, in anything but ice cream or actual chocolate chip cookies. So I make one loaf with chips for my son and one with walnuts for myself.

    Reply
  7. Louise

    I really enjoyed this post. After reading it, I pulled out the Moosewood Cookbook and the banana bread is now in the oven. What a great combination of ingredients, thanks for the reminder. I haven’t been baking much lately and appreciate the inspiration.

    Reply
  8. SB

    PJ, if you do make the banana-cashew pancakes, you might want to turn the heat down a little, they brown fast and I think the flavor is best when they are medium brown, not dark brown. Also, the recipe says it makes four servings – must be four lumberjacks! I think it makes more like 8-10 servings.

    Reply

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