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. Debbie

    Thanks for a lovely article.
    My local “international” grocery store often sells overripe bananas in a big bag for about $1. Yes – one Dollar for about 20 bananas! I freeze them for later use. Thanks to the comment earlier about peeling and flattening! Will do that next time.

    Reply
  2. Jan Wooler

    I make the same recipe I grew up on. It is from the 1948 edition of the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook. It has just enough great banana flavor and walnuts. The top wonderfully crusty and a little sweet. I’ve tried a few others and eaten many others yet I find this to be my favorite.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      When you find something you like, Jan — stick with it! Your description is very tempting… PJH

  3. Roberta Hill

    I use the banana loaf recipe from Anne Byrn’s Cake Mix Doctor. I tweaked it with half a small can of mandarin oranges one day, and my four boys really enjoyed it. The oldest liked it so much I bought mini-loaf pans and made it weekly for him. All through high school he took a mini loaf in his lunch every day – he played football and could afford the calories. His friends used to joke it was “steroid bread” but several of the team moms asked for the recipe. When Anne came to Dallas on a book tour, I asked her to sign that page, and she added “I am thrilled this page is splattered!”. I found out that his girlfriend liked it too but he wouldn’t share his with her (he’s 27 now!) so the next time he brought her for Sunday dinner, I gave her a batch and told her she didn’t have to share with him!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Roberta, what lovely banana bread memories. I hope your son now has the recipe and if he bakes nothing else, is able to bake the bread and carry on your tradition… hopefully, this time, being better about sharing! 🙂 PJH

  4. Claire

    I just pulled a loaf of banana bread (Thomas Keller’s banana muffins in load form) from the oven – this recipe involved cake flour and overnight refrigeration!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Interesting the overnight refrigeration. Maybe, as it does with cookies, this produces some caramelization in the crust? I’ll have to try that sometime. Thanks for sharing, Claire — PJH

  5. Florence Bogstad

    I smiled when I saw the recipe for banana bread but right now my older bananas are being used to make my German Shepherd dog cookies…oat flour, oats mashed banana, peanut butter and an egg. Tablespoon onto parchment paper and knuckled down..300 degrees for 40 minutes. She loves them and my sons King Charles (fussy one) loves them too. Love all your info..Florence

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Florence, I might have to try that for my two big dogs; they’re always into something new in the food department. Thanks for the inspiration! PJH

  6. Judy Beam

    Great article! And I liked all the replies. I think I would love to make most if not all of these recipes. But I don’t have enough bananas (and I know I could buy more but…) or loaf pans or energy to do so. LOL. I have a recipe from an old cookbook, Blue Ribbon Recipes, that I use. Only I add a dollop of sour cream to the mixture and sometimes add an extra banana. I have overripe bananas just waiting in the kitchen to bake into deliciousness!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Judy, several people have mentioned adding extra banana. I think I’ll wander off the beaten path next time and try that. Thanks for the tip — PJH

  7. Sonia Vanderby

    Thanks for a great article – it was very interesting reading and seeing how recipes have changed over time and the societal influences driving the variations. I think you have my dream job, trying out and comparing so many recipes – thanks for letting us live vicariously through you!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Sonia, I absolutely do have my dream job, and have been lucky to have it for over 26 years! Glad to share, if only vicariously… PJH

  8. Anne

    Thanks for the history lesson!
    I jotted down the ingredients for the 1930’s version, and guessed at the directions. But before directions say to “bake in moderate oven”, there is something referring to “30 minutes”. Is the batter supposed to sit 30 min prior to baking? Never heard of that before, but maybe batter gets more aerated?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Anne, here’s the entire recipe, courtesy of foodtimeline.org, my go-to source for all kinds of food history:
      [1930]
      “Banana-Nut Bread
      1/4 cup shortening
      1/2 cup sugar
      1 beaten egg
      1 cup bran
      2 tablespoons water
      1 1/2 cups mashed bananas
      1 1/2 cups flour
      2 teaspoons baking powder
      1/2 teaspoon salt
      1/2 teaspoon soda
      1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      1/2 cup chopped nut meats
      Cream shortening and sugar until smooth; add egg, then bran, and mix [sic] thoroly. Mix water with banana and add alternately with flour which has been sifted with baking powder, salt, and soda. Mix thoroly and add vanilla and nut meats. Place in greased 1-pound loaf pan and let stand 30 minutes. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) about 1 hour. This is delicious sliced thin and served with soft cream cheese.”
      —My New Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book [Meredith Publishing:Des Moines IA] 5th edition, 1930 (p. 10)
      – PJH

  9. Adriana

    Thanks for the story, banana bread has always been around home. My kids have loved it since they were small and we live in such a hot place, bananas don’t last too long during spring and summer, so there are always some to mash up. I have a very simple recipe which does not need eggs and Smitten Kitchen has a really good double chocolate banana bread one, worth giving a try if you like both banana and chocolate 😋

    Reply
  10. Chris

    Great article – never knew how banana bread originated. My favorite banana bread is from a Cooking Light recipe – Jamaican Banana Nut Bread. It has coconut in it and also has a glaze made from brown sugar, butter, lime juice, rum, pecans and coconut.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Chris, that glaze sounds spectacular — though “light” as applied to sugar, butter, pecans, and coconut seems oxymoronic! 🙂 Thanks for sharing — PJH

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