Issue No. 15: Zingerman’s Banana Bread

The top of the daily task board for the pastry chefs at Zingerman’s Bakehouse always says “Bananas?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no. But there’s no telling. You could be knocking out the thousand other things on your list or you might be peeling bananas that day. And when that happens, it’s banana bread time.

Ripe bananas are one of the tougher ingredients to secure.

When Zingerman’s pastry chefs concocted their banana bread recipe a couple years back, getting a regular supply of them was a serious supply concern. The best bananas for banana bread are just cresting the peak of ripeness. The color of the peel is dark yellow and splotches of brown freckle the whole surface. This is the moment the fruit is at its peak, the starches broken down into sugars leaving it soft and very sweet.

They tried fresh, peeled bananas that were flash frozen and shipped their way, but the flavor wasn’t right. The bananas weren’t ripe enough so they weren’t sweet enough.

The problem is no one sells bananas that are yellow and freckled because no one will buy them. Most fruit sellers remove bananas like that from their stock—both at retail and wholesale level—because they’re too far gone for most customers. They put out the green bananas and get rid of the yellow ones.

As luck would have it, the Bakehouse sells lots of breads and pastries to grocery stores all around southeastern Michigan. The stores had a problem with supply that matched the Bakehouse’s  problem of demand. A deal was struck! When a store had bananas, Bakehouse delivery drivers would swap the bread for cases of bananas. Sometimes, there’d be a case to grab, most of the time there’d be none. And sometimes they return with thirty cases of super ripe bananas.

When that happens, the answer to the task board “Bananas?” is “YES! BANANAS!”

These days are “all hands on deck” days. Accountants, managers, bakers on their break—everyone chips in. Bananas have to be frozen before they ripen any more, so everyone helps hand peel each banana. It often means missing a meeting or staying late, but it’s a huge reason why our banana bread tastes so good. It’s also the reason they’re shopping for a bigger compost bin.

The bananas don’t stay frozen very long, but it sure makes managing the ingredients easier. You can’t plan when you’ll be peeling bananas but you can schedule when you’re going to make banana bread.

About two perfectly ripe hand-peeled bananas go into each loaf of banana bread with flour, cane sugar, Grassland butter from Wisconsin, hand cracked eggs, real vanilla, some sea salt and a little baking soda.