cooks illustrated’s ultimate banana bread

banana bread 6

I’ve always wanted to do a banana bread comparison post, and I still plan to someday, but usually I make banana bread for one primary purpose: to use up old bananas. And this recipe is the best for that, because it uses five bananas (six if you include the garnish, which I usually don’t), which is about twice as many as most other banana bread recipes. Furthermore, this recipe actually works better with previously frozen bananas, which mine always are.

banana bread 1

It manages to fit so many bananas into one loaf because the liquid is extracted before the batter is mixed. I love sucking the liquid out of ingredients before using them in recipes, especially quick breads like this zucchini bread. But I have to admit that I hadn’t realized bananas contained so much water. With zucchini, it’s obvious because water droplets immediately appear on a newly cut surface, but bananas had always seemed relatively dry to me.

banana bread 2

That’s until you freeze and then defrost them, when they turn into a pile of gross brown mush soaking in gross brown liquid. And this is perfect, because the mush is ready to mix right into the batter, and the liquid can be simmered down into a concentrated banana syrup, so not one bit of banana flavor is wasted. And if you don’t constantly have a bag of bananas taking up space in your freezer, of course you don’t need previously frozen bananas for this recipe – a quick trip to the microwave achieves the same effect.

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The end result is a banana bread that’s moist and tender, even if I go ahead and utilize my favorite quick bread tricks of subbing half whole wheat pastry flour and reducing the fat by 25% by replacing some of the butter with oil. Plus I figure that all that extra fruit in there contributes more fiber and nutrients. It’s not over-the-top banana-y either, despite containing so much more banana than most loaves. It’s so good that it’s actually worth making just for the sake of eating it, not just to use up the ingredients!

banana bread 4

One year ago: Pappa al Pomodoro
Two years ago: Risotto with Swiss Chard
Three years ago: Gazpacho

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Ultimate Banana Bread (from Cooks Illustrated)

I’ve reproduced Cooks Illustrated’s recipe exactly below. However, I don’t particularly care for the sliced bananas on top. They’re pretty, but they’re too sweet and candy-like (which really doesn’t sound like me, come to think of it).

You can slightly healthy up this recipe by replacing half of the flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and using 4 tablespoons butter plus 2 tablespoons canola oil instead of 8 tablespoons butter. The oil helps keeps the loaf moist, and of course leaving all that butter in contributes flavor.

1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
6 large very ripe bananas (about 2¼ pounds), peeled
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs
¾ cup packed (5¼ ounces) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.

2. Place 5 bananas in a microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents in the plastic with a paring knife. Microwave on high power until the bananas are soft and have released liquid, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bananas to a fine-mesh strainer placed over a medium bowl and allow to drain, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes (you should have ½ to ¾ cups liquid).

3. Transfer the liquid to a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until it’s reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir the reduced liquid into the bananas, and mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth. Whisk in the butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.

4. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined with some streaks of flour remaining. Gently fold in the walnuts, if using. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Slice the remaining banana diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices. Shingle the banana slices on top of both sides of the loaf, leaving a 1½-inch-wide space down the center to ensure an even rise. Sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over loaf.

5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 55 to 75 minutes. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and continue to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

banana bread 5


  1. I always have frozen bananas living in my freezer too – in fact there are way too many in there right now. Thinking I am going to make this soon. Thanks for the recipe!

  2. What a delicious banana bread recipe! I will try this soon. Thanks a lot for sharing with us 🙂

  3. Hi, Bridget:
    Are you using whole wheat pastry flour because it’s somehow ‘lighter’ than regular whole wheat flour? And are you subbing it ounce for ounce or cup for cup? (Asking because I’m very interested in trying this sub. myself!)

  4. The bananas on top seal the deal!

  5. I have an old family banana bread recipe that I use frozen bananas for (I can’t tell you how happy I was when I learned that you could freeze bananas!), but I’ve never thought of adding a sliced banana around the outer edge. I imagine they get a gooey caramel flavor to them? Must try that.

  6. bridget says:

    Audrey – Yes, the whole wheat pastry flour seems to mimic the flavor and texture of white all-purpose flour better than regular whole wheat flour, which I’m assuming is because it’s lighter than regular flour. I usually sub ounce for ounce, but when I’ve subbed cup for cup, I haven’t had any different results. I guess I should weigh a cup of whole wheat pastry flour and see if it weighs the same as all-purpose flour!

  7. This is absolutely my FAVORITE banana bread recipe. So much better than anything else I’ve made (I can eat a whole mini loaf without even noticing).

  8. Love the sliced bananas lining the bread – I will definite have to try this recipe!

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Bridget. I am always looking for a newer, better banana bread recipe. I can never seem to settle on “the one.” Perhaps this is it!

  10. I have always used a recipe from Hubby’s mom but this one looks great.

  11. i love banana bread. saw them make this one on tv and thought it looked amazing…yours looks just as great!

  12. if you decide to so a banana bread side-by-side, my favorite go-to banana bread recipe is by joanne chang of flour in boston. but i think i’m about to toss some bananas in the freezer for my own test. 😉

  13. What is a quick way to thaw the frozen bananas? I usually just let them drain in a collander in the sink. Any faster way?

  14. bridget says:

    Mary – I usually let them drain in a collander as well. I’m sure you could zap them in the microwave on defrost for a minute or two to speed up the process though.

  15. Thank you for posting! I have this issue somewhere, but I lost it. I was despairing, because it is my go-to banana bread recipe. I use frozen bananas like you do. I use 1/2 bread flour – I like it dense. (But, the bread flour absorbs more moisture, so I reduce the banana juice to only 1/3 cup.) Sometimes I add chocolate chips. It’s more of a dessert. 🙂

  16. Kayla says:

    After reducing the banana liquid, do you add it back to the mush?

  17. bridget says:

    Kayla – Yes, the banana liquid goes into the batter.

  18. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the recipe, this banana bread sounds great. Do you freeze the bananas whole with the skins on and when they are overripe? And, do you thaw them before microwaving? Also, can this recipe be made into mini-muffins; and, if so, would you alter the temp and time? Thank you

  19. We started with out peeling- you should make it more clear that you have to peel the bananas. Plus you can’t peel a frozen banana!!!

  20. I made this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen after watching the episode and being fascinated by the reduction technique. Well, I’m not impressed. Sorry, but I’m just not. My family did not notice any increase in banana flavor over my “go to” recipe using 3-4 bananas, the shingled bananas spread out and looked like a strange embellishment after baking, and the extra steps took an extra 20 minutes. My favorite recipe uses HALF the butter, HALF the eggs, ONE THIRD less sugar, and some WHOLE GRAIN PASTRY FLOUR. It’s light, moist, banana-y and a far more wholesome snack than this.

  21. Raquel McMahan says:

    I love this recipe. I have done around 3 times. My kids loved it. I added chia seeds in order to add more nutrition and the kids didn’t notice it. by the way Eric. Don’t be so hard. If you spend more time in the kitchen you will know that bananas are always peeled. You silly goose!

  22. Bridget-I would like to try this version of banana bread, but some measurements are missing in the recipe. Can you please clarify? Thank you.

  23. JS – All of the measurements appear to be in the recipe. Perhaps it’s a formatting issue and some fractions aren’t showing up on your computer? Let me know exactly what you’re missing.

  24. Eric, I freeze bananas with the peel still on. I let them defrost (still peeled) on the counter sitting on a plate, and when I’m ready to use them I just squeeze one end and plop, out slides the banana. Super duper easy – no need to peel.

  25. banananut says:

    Substituted the brown sugar for 3/4 c. sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons honey, and substituted the walnuts with toasted peanuts.

  26. i have found leaving walnuts in large pieces makes banana bread more moist. I have tried several ways chopping nuts and this has worked the best.

  27. Excellent recipe! And, for my tastes, I tinkered with the recipe. For years, I have used/loved the recipe in Susan Loomis’ Farmhouse Cookbook, including my tinkering with it. I adapted some of this tinkered recipe to Cook’s llustrated’s recipe: adding juice of juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/4 cup plain yogurt, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, and 2 tsp homemade two-fold vanilla extract. Also, I love walnuts in banana bread, but I have become have become chewing challenged (age 75). So I ground 1 1/4 cups of walnuts and added it. Miss the crunch, love the flavor! I put Loomis’ tinkered recipe in a tie with my tinkered version of CI’s Ultimate recipe. With restraint both last about three days in our house.

  28. Marta says:

    Tomus: I am going to try the recipe with your suggested changes. What is homemade two-fold vanilla extract?

    Also, has anyone tried to add wheat germ to the mix? My favorite all time buttermilk pancake recipe is Cook’s Illustrated version, but I always add 1/4 cup wheat germ.

  29. Carolyn says:

    This is the best banana bread recipe I have tried so far. It is fabulous!

  30. Thanks for posting! I couldn’t afford ‘Cook’’ anymore so of course can’t see the recipes. I have their old ‘best’ banana bread recipe in one of their books, but I was looking for this updated one with the banana ‘liquor’ and the banana on top. I had it, did it several times, and lost it. Loved the recipe. Many thanks. Did you see the interesting profile of the ‘Cook’s Illustrated’ Kimball guy in his newest incarnation written up in the ‘New York Times’? Interesting! Check it out.

    Zelda Sydney