Yams or sweet potatoes? Sweet confusion!

Submitted by Judy on Sat, 11/23/2013 - 9:49am.

Thanksgiving is around the corner, and even those who count the can opener as their favorite (and only) kitchen tool are planning to pull out all the stops for this feeding frenzy of a holiday. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Fresh turkey or frozen. Free range or…not. To brine or not to brine. And that’s just the main dish. Come to the side of the plate, and the real confusion begins. What on earth is the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Well, when it comes to potatoes I know whom to turn to.

Distinguished cookbook editor Roy Finamore, with Fine Cooking magazine's Molly Stevens, offers 300 exciting, spud-studded recipes from appetizers, soups and salads through main courses, breads and even desserts in One Potato, Two Potato (Houghton Mifflin), an encyclopedic, lavishly photographed guide to everything you ever wanted to know about this humble vegetable.

Sweet potatoes, botanically unrelated to the potato, but included in the book nonetheless, are often mislabeled as "yams," Finamore explains. The true yam is more like the potato and not nearly as sweet as the sweet potato. Its texture upon cooking is also more like that of the potato, rather than the custardy texture of the sweet potato. Chances are your candied “yams” are really candied sweet potatoes.

“It’s an American thing, this confusion,” writes Finamore, who credits vegetable authority Elizabeth Schneider for tracing the mix-up to the African slaves, who began calling the American sweet potato “yams” because of their resemblance to the yams they remembered back home. “But the resemblance ends there,” continues Finamore. “Yams and sweet potatoes come from different families and have different flavors and different uses.” Full story with recipe

As Americans, we have a sweet tooth, and if it’s sweet you’re going for in your “yam” dish, chances are, no matter whether the sign in the supermarket says “yams” or “sweet potatoes,” they’re both technically sweet potatoes. The copper-colored variety with the bright, moist, orange flesh is the jewel “yam” and is considered the most versatile of the sweet potato family. It is used in any recipe where color and appearance are important. The garnet with its deep red or purple skin and soft, moist, lighter orange flesh is recommended for pies, cakes and breads or in recipes that call for mashed or grated sweet potatoes, because the flesh becomes soft upon cooking.

And for the health conscious, sweet potatoes pack a punch. According to the Sweet Potato Council of California, sweet potatoes have twice the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A, one-third of our daily requirement of Vitamin C, are high in Vitamin B6, iron, potassium and fiber, high in complex carbohydrates and low in calories…well, without all the stuff you pile on it, I guess, but where’s the fun in that?

I always adored my grandmother’s sweet potato pie with melted marshmallows, but it was a secret indulgence. I somehow thought of it as the untrendy stepchild of Thanksgivings past, or as Rodney Dangerfield might have put it, “It ain’t got no respect.” That is, until I heard the late Julia Child interviewed one year right before the holiday. She was asked what dish she was most looking forward to for Thanksgiving, and she said mashed sweet potato casserole with marshmallows! Ah, sweet vindication.

Finamore’s version is adapted from the favorite casserole found in the 1959 “River Road Recipes” by the Junior League of Baton Rouge. Use as many marshmallows – regular or mini - or as few as you like. Finamore also suggests substituting 1 cup canned crushed pineapple for the milk, if you prefer, and/or adding some sherry or rum for extra punch.


From “One Potato, Two Potato” by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens
3 to 3 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Heat the oven to 450° F. Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork and bake on a foil tray until tender, about 1 hour. Lower oven temperature to 350° F. Butter a large gratin dish or 3-quart casserole. Peel potatoes and mash in a bowl with a fork. Stir in cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange juice. Combine milk, vanilla, sugar, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat and bring just to a boil. Stir this into the potatoes. Spoon half the potatoes into the baking dish Cover with layer of marshmallows, then repeat with remaining potatoes and another layer of marshmallows. Bake until well browned, about 20-25 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 8-10.