I Tried 4 Famous Ways of Making Banana Pudding, and the Winner Swept Them All
In the world of desserts, banana pudding earns the congeniality award. It’s a friendly sort of recipe — good to the cook, because it’s a fantastic make-ahead option that’s always well-received, and great for those who eat it, because it’s simply delicious. Banana pudding is wonderful any time of year, too — just as welcome at a backyard barbecue as it is on a holiday sideboard — and it can feel homey or fancy depending on the presentation.
As a lifelong Southerner (I grew up in Mississippi and now live in Birmingham, Alabama), I have enjoyed my fair share of banana pudding. I’ve typically had it as a cold layered dessert made with vanilla custard, sliced bananas, and Nilla Wafers that soften in the same way that graham crackers or cookies do in an icebox cake. Recently, I even had my world rocked by a warm version (amazing!) made with crisp pecan sandies (also incredible!) at a local restaurant.
But what makes for a winning banana pudding recipe? To find out, I pitted four popular recipes against each other in a side-by-side test. I was surprised by how different each recipe tasted, despite being composed of basically the same elements: bananas, vanilla custard, cookies, and a creamy topping. The winner was one I’ll be dreaming about (and making) a lot!
So, What’s the Best Banana Pudding Recipe?
Rodney Scott’s banana pudding is the very best recipe we tested. The rich and creamy custard is worth making from scratch, and the store-bought wafer cookies makes it relatively easy to whip together.
Meet Our 4 Banana Pudding Contenders
The banana pudding recipes I tested do stick, roughly, to the same formula — fresh bananas, vanilla custard, creamy component, and cookies — but there’s a lot of variation among them. Two of the recipes top the dessert with meringue — one an airy French meringue, and the other a dense Swiss meringue — while another uses sweetened whipped cream as the topping. Three use a homemade vanilla custard, while one uses a supermarket shortcut. Three of the four stick with classic vanilla wafer cookies, while one uses a homemade cookie. Each recipe was unique and surprisingly different from the rest.
Carla Hall: The recipe from this popular chef begins with homemade vanilla shortbread in place of packaged vanilla wafers. It also blends banana (as in, in a blender) for a fruit-infused pastry cream that also incorporates whipped heavy cream and chopped bananas. Finally, it layers the cookies and pastry cream in a trifle dish and tops everything off with a banana-flavored Swiss meringue.
Dolly Parton: The beloved singer shares her mother’s recipe, a simple old-fashioned take that layers homemade vanilla custard with store-bought vanilla wafers and sliced bananas. The finishing touch is a basic French meringue that’s toasted by placing the banana pudding in the oven long enough to give the meringue some color.
Rodney Scott: This recipe, shared by the acclaimed southeastern barbecue chain, is similar to Parton’s recipe, in that it uses a classic vanilla custard, sliced bananas, and store-bought vanilla wafers, but instead of meringue it tops the pudding with chantilly cream (sweetened, vanilla-flavored whipped cream).
Magnolia Bakery: Promising to be the easiest recipe of the bunch, this best-seller uses just six ingredients (one of which is water), leans on instant pudding mix, and requires no cooking. It’s worth noting also that many popular blogs base their recipes on Magnolia Bakery’s famous banana pudding.
How I Tested the Banana Pudding Recipes
- I made all of the banana pudding recipes on the same day. I prepared and assembled all of the recipes in the morning, then chilled them for several hours. (One exception: I made the shortbread cookie dough for Carla Hall’s recipe the night before, but I baked the cookies the next morning.) I was able to evaluate all of the recipes side-by-side.
- I used the same brand of common ingredients. Aside from making sure to use the same brand of cream, eggs, milk, butter, vanilla, and sugar, I most notably used Nabisco Nilla Wafers for the three recipes that called for vanilla wafer cookies.
- I tasted each banana pudding twice. I tried each recipe a few hours after assembling and chilling, lining them up side-by-side for comparison. I also tried them again the next morning.
Why You Should Trust Me as a Tester
In my 25 years in food media (20 as a magazine editor, 5 as a freelance recipe developer and food writer), I have written, tested, and developed literally thousands of recipes. I know how to evaluate a recipe for flavor, texture, and clarity and success (or failure) of the process.