Bananas Foster: The Easiest Dessert You’ll Ever Light on Fire

Overhead view of bananas foster
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I will be the first to tell you that I am not a baker. I don’t mean that I can’t bake, I can—if you doubt me, watch me make the infamous pecan pie recipe that Stella Parks deemed so difficult she refused to release to the public. For me, baking usually involves more effort than I care to expend on dessert, a part of the meal that I consider fully optional. This means that my sweet spot for desserts is anything with a great effort-to-reward ratio, and if the bananas Foster is anything, it’s that.

What makes bananas Foster so great is how high it scores on all the following metrics: Easy to make? Check. Impressive? Check, check. Delicious? Check, check, check. Pyrotechnics? Check, check, check, check, check, and…IGNITION.

Overhead view of banana ice cream
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Those flames can be a hurdle, though. Recipes that involve a setting a bonfire to a skillet can be intimidating, so let’s address this head-on. First, you don’t have to light the alcohol on fire, you can successfully simmer the caramel with the booze the caramel reaches a good stage for serving; the alcohol will mostly have cooked off at that point anyway. But second, it’s really not that hard. Just think about who traditionally makes bananas Foster. (Hint: It’s not the chefs.) I’ll explain.

Flash in the Pan: Why the Origins of Bananas Foster Explain Its Ease

Bananas Foster is a New Orleans classic, invented in the 1950s at the restaurant Brennan’s in honor of Richard Foster, the city’s crime commissioner at the time. Watch any video of bananas Foster being made at Brennan’s (there are a lot!), and you’ll notice that this is one of those tableside desserts that restaurants like to do for a little dining-room theatrics. I mean, I get it, the pyrotechnics are cool.

But you can only do tableside service for dishes that are easy to make, for a couple reasons. First, the dish has to be quick and simple enough to prepare in minutes using minimal gear and ingredients. It doesn’t work to have the maître d’ pull up a cooking trolley and then slowly stir a pot in front of you while saying, “And now we’ll keep cooking this roux for another 45 minutes until it’s dark enough for a proper gumbo. Care for a cocktail?”

Overhead view of banana foster
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

And that’s the other thing: It’s usually a maître d’ or other front-of-house staff doing the cooking, not the actual cooks in the kitchen, and while I mean no disrespect, being a great cook isn’t part of any front-of-house job description. So a tableside dish like bananas Foster has to be something the wait staff and management can quickly learn to whip up successfully on repeat with a side of flair and entertaining monologue.

None of it will work if it’s a difficult or time-consuming dish to make.

Look How Easy!

I can write all day about how contextual clues are proof that bananas Foster is easy, but I can also just tell you. It’s this easy:

  • Melt butter and brown sugar in a pan along with a pinch of salt and warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
  • Add bananas and cook as caramel forms.
  • Add booze and light it on fire. Cook until flames die down and caramel looks good.
  • Serve with ice cream.

One note on the booze: In the original recipe from Brennan’s, both rum and banana liqueur go into the pan. I considered calling for banana liqueur here too, but eventually decided against it. I’m sure there are some legitimate uses for banana liqueur and perhaps some of you reading this already have a bottle in your liquor cabinet. But I can’t in good conscience call for an ingredient with such limited utility when you really don’t need it here. The bananas in the pan are banana-y enough, the rum tastes great, you will not miss it.

Close up of bananas
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

That said, if you have banana liqueur and want to add a splash, please do—though as with all flambés, never pour directly from any bottle of booze directly into the pan with a flame under it, lest the fire leaps up and lights the whole bottle on fire. The goal is to flambé the alcohol in the pan, not make a Molotov cocktail.

The classic way to serve bananas Foster is with some ice cream, usually vanilla but I say have fun with whatever flavor appeals to you. This raises a kind of definitional question that I’d like to leave you with: Is bananas Foster a dessert unto itself, in which à la mode is the typical way to serve it? Or are we really just making a banana–flavored caramel sauce for ice cream? My god, I just realized it’s an à la minute banana split, served hot. I think I just lit my brain on fire.

In a large 12-inch stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter with the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt while stirring and swirling, until mixture blends into a grainy liquid and begins to bubble, about 2 minutes. Add bananas, cut side down, and continue to cook, swirling gently, until liquid begins to resemble a more smooth caramel, about 2 minutes longer.

Four image collage of cooking bananas
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add rum (do not pour directly from the bottle if working over an open flame), then tilt pan to ignite the alcohol from a gas burner, or carefully light with a match. Cook, shaking the pan, until the flames have died out and the caramel has thickened to a honey consistency, about 1 to 2 minutes. Alternatively, you can add the rum and not light it on fire, instead simmering until the rum has mostly cooked off and the caramel has reached a honey consistency.

Side view banana foster on fire
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Flip bananas cut side up, then transfer to serving plates with ice cream (2 pieces of banana each for 6 servings; 3 pieces of banana each for 4 servings; or 4 pieces of banana each for 3 servings).

Overhead view of bananas foster
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Make-Ahead and Storage

Bananas Foster is best made right before serving and eaten immediately.