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. Nancy Schaefer

    One of my aunts made a favorite version: the banana bread had a light texture like coffee cake, and she covered it before baking with a mixture of grated orange peel, chopped pecans, coconut, brown sugar and cinnamon. Really wonderful flavors.

    Reply
  2. Barb

    Loved the article on banana bread. My current favorite is Six-Banana Banana Bread by Averie Sunshine that I found on Pinterest. I also like the banana bread from Cook’s Illustrated.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Margaret, sounds like you’ve taken your banana bread to a new level — thanks for sharing. PJH

  3. Elohor

    Thanks for such great article, reading thru was like watching an interesting movie. I have never tasted or seen a banana bread before. i’m sure going to bake some myself soon. Once again thanks.

    Reply
  4. Betsy

    Hi PJ,

    I have been making my Grandmother’s banana bread recipe all of my life. Unfortunately I never knew my Grandmother, she passed away one month after I was born, so when I do make it I feel it’s a connection to her. I’m assuming the recipe is from the 30’s but it’s not like anyone else’s I’ve ever seen. It does not use any type of spices and is so good my sister used it for her wedding cake! It is made with shortening and I have tried using coconut oil instead (it tasted like a commercial bakery cake, eww). My next try will be with lard, just to see how it will come out (trying to get away from the hydrogenated fats). I am able to get fresh rendered lard from a local butcher. I knew it was special when my brother-in-law told me it was better than his grandmother’s and then begged me to please not say anything to her or she would be furious with him! I wanted to say how much I love your tutorials and all of your experiments, it has taught me to not be afraid to experiment with baking. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It sounds like banana bread holds a special place in your family’s baking repertoire, Betsy. Those are certainly the recipes that taste the best and are most worthy for celebrations, especially weddings! Thanks for sharing with us, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. Carolyn D Bellah

    My banana bread recipe is in the 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking. It uses pecans but no spices. It was a revised and expanded version of previous editions so its recipes still called for sugar and butter. There was a small section added near the back which offered some sugarless or low-sugar recipes and suggestions as well as a few for meatless or meat stretcher meals. (Sugar was first rationed in the spring of ’42; then coffee in the fall followed by meat and many other commodities. Sugar was rationed until 1947 though most rationing ended right after the war.) The book was given to me as a 13th birthday present in ’45…I wasn’t cooking much at the time. However. my mother used it frequently until I married in the mid-50’s and it’s been used heavily since then and is held together with a heavy-duty rubber band. The banana bread page is heavily splattered. Reckon Mrs Rombauer would be pleased?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      One thing is for sure; Mrs. Rombauer is smiling down on you every time you pull out the freckly bananas and turn to that weathered page! Happy banana bread baking, Carolyn! Kye@KAF

  6. Benita Moore

    The banana nut bread of my childhood was made with Bisquick. Still my favorite. bettycrocker.com/recipes/bisquick-banana-nut-bread/987a8437-68af-4434-a474-152d9329251e

    Reply
  7. Linda DV

    Our favorite banana bread recipe is from an early 60’s school auxiliary fund raiser cookbook. I like the texture of butter in quick breads, this recipe started my search for other breads made with butter. They are all favorites now. My daughter makes this into muffins and the grandkids love them. I like that the recipe uses a measurement for the bananas, I keep a note with the math worked out for the amount of bananas on hand.

    Kauki Inn Banana Bread
    2c sugar
    1c butter
    2c mashed bananas
    4 eggs
    2 1/2c flour
    1t salt
    2t baking soda
    1/2t allspice
    1t nutmeg
    1t cinnamon
    1c nuts (optional)
    Cream butter and sugar together. Add bananas and eggs. Combine dry ingredients, add to the mixture without overbeating. 350° for 45 to 50 minutes in 2 one pound loaves or 4 small loaves.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Linda, aside from the addition of the spices and the specific mention of butter (where shortening is called for in the original) this is a match for the Kona Inn banana bread recipe, a famous recipe from that iconic Hawaiian hotel. It’s interesting how a recipe passes from hand to hand, acquiring tweaks along the way (including, in this case, changing Kona to Kauki). Since you’re the second person championing this bread, I definitely have to make it soon! Thanks for sharing — PJH

  8. Cathlyne Camp-Murray

    My favorite recipe is the one my mother got in home ec in 1940. It is simple but has the best flavor and texture. There is no dairy other than butter and it uses baking soda..I always go back to it!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Cathlyne, I love it when we carry forward our mother’s or grandmother’s recipes; it’s a wonderful feeling of continuity, isn’t it? And it’s great you have a favorite go-to recipe for this ever-popular bread. Cheers! PJH

  9. Glenda Broome

    This is the recipe that I have used for 10+ years. It is fabulous and everyone always wants the recipe! I have a friend that makes this and sells it at local craft shows.

    Banana-Pineapple Bread

    3 eggs, beaten
    3 cups flour
    1 tsp. soda
    1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
    2 cups mashed bananas (I just throw 2 or 3 or 4 really really ripe
    bananas in the bowl in hunks)
    1/2 cup nuts (or more…)
    3 cups sugar
    1 tsp. salt
    1 tsp. cinnamon
    1 1/2 cups oil
    1 (8 oz.) can crushed pineapple with juice

    Mix everything together in a large bowl until well blended. Bake for one
    hour at 350 degrees in a 3 or 4 small loaf pans.

    Enjoy!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Wow, Glenda, this looks like a very rich and tasty loaf — I’m not surprised everyone wants the recipe! Thanks for sharing — PJH

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