Confused by all the yam and sweet potato options? Learn what to expect in terms of flavor, textures, and best uses here.
Once upon a time we simply had sweet potatoes in the United States; now we have all kinds of different types, sometimes some are called yams, other times they are called sweet potatoes, sometimes they are called both. Some have orange flesh, some are creamy white, and some come in shades of vibrant purple. What does it all mean???
The difference between yams and sweet potatoes
First things first, some clarification. You may think that those are candied yams on the holiday table, but they are most likely not. What we buy here in the States are all, botanically speaking, sweet potatoes – unless you are shopping in an international market. True yams are native to Africa and Asia, and are white-fleshed, dark-skinned, dry and starchy.
Prior to the middle of the 20th century, the U.S. only had firm, white-fleshed sweet potatoes on the market. When their soft, orange-fleshed brethren became available, the new guys were referred to as yams to differentiate between the two – and we've been confused ever since. Now the USDA requires that products labeled as "yam" also include the term "sweet potato" – technically, they are all sweet potatoes. If you see "yams" in a recipe, it is referring to orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
How to cook sweet potatoesOf course there are endless ways to prepare these beauties, but here are the two basic methods I used for the purpose of this story. Basic, but delicious.
Sweet potatoes do not like to be baked like a regular baked potato does; they prefer a longer bake at a lower temperature, which allows more of the starch to convert to sugars, which caramelize for a deeper flavor. Cook's Illustrated points to the prefection of chef Michael Solomonov's baked sweet potato – one which results in interiors that are "not just tender but downright plush, and their flavor ... concentrated to the point of tasting caramelized, with hints of molasses." Solomonov's glorious method calls for baking them at a 275F-degree oven for two and a half hours. For a shortcut, CI pre-cooks them in the microwave; since I don't have a microwave, I go for the whole two and a half hours in the oven. Obviously, this is not a summertime endeavor.
ROASTED in HALVES
A quicker way to oven cook sweet potatoes is in halves, which is the perfect middle road between roasted chunks and baked whole. I love this method for most varieties. They become a bit denser than when baked, the cut side caramelizes just a bit, and the flavor is deep and wonderful. And again, it is much quicker.
How-to: Cut potatoes in half, lightly oil cut sides, place face down on a light colored baking sheet (they may brown too much on a darker sheet), bake at 400F degrees until soft. The ones pictured on top ranged in size from 12 to 16 ounces (whole) and took 40 minutes.
Which types to buyI shopped all around my NYC neighborhood to see which varieties were commonly offered, and came up with these five, which are the ones I see in other places as well. The farmer's market has all kinds of gorgeous heirloom varieties – and those may be the very best for many reasons (local, sustainable, support biodiversity, etc) – but since those are so specific to specific farms and locations, I stuck with these supermarket types, which should be widely available. I was able to find organic versions of them all.
Great for: Boiling, baking, casseroles, sweet potato pie, adding to hummus.
Great for: Roasting, baking, stuffing, mashing, casseroles, soup, pureeing, pies.
Great for: Perfect, actually, for roasting in chunks since they hold their shape, roasting in halves, baking, mashing, putting in stews and soup, fries.
Great for: A slow bake, mashed, simmered in curries, soups, added to other dishes for their exquisite color.
Great for: Roasting in halves or chunks, stuffing, steaming, fries, mashing with coconut milk, soups, stews, eating leftovers straight from the fridge.
All of these sweet potatoes have their merits; and while they may not all be equally exchangeable in recipes, it can be great fun to play around with them. When in doubt, you can always mix and match, too, since the various moisture levels can work to compliment each other – like make chunky mashed sweet potatoes using jewel and purple varieties, so delicious and pretty.
And on that note, BRB, I have more sweet potatoes to eat.