• A sweet potato can be prepared in just about every way a potato can.
• What most people in North America call a yam is really an orange-fleshed sweet potato.
The three sentences above are the basics of sweet potatoes. Once you understand the basics, the world of sweet potatoes is easy.
The sweet potato looks like both a potato and a yam. But the potato and yam are two different vegetables from two totally different botanical families.
The sweet potato—like the potato—is a native of Central America. There are archeological records of sweet potatoes growing in Peru more than 10,000 years ago.
The true yam most probably originated in West Africa many thousands of years ago but traveled to the Western Hemisphere in only the last 500 years.
There are two main types of sweet potato (although there are more than 400 varieties): one has orange flesh and becomes soft and moist when cooked, and the other has white flesh and becomes relatively dry and crumbly when cooked.
The sweet potato with white-colored flesh is sometimes called white sweet potato but also batata, batata dulce, camote, and Cuban sweet potato.
The sweet potato with orange-colored flesh is called sweet potato and also yam.
The orange-fleshed sweet potato was dubbed “yam” in the 1930s when growers in the American state of Louisiana wanted to distinguish their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes from the white-fleshed sweet potatoes grown in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. Calling a yellow-fleshed sweet potato a yam was simply a marketing decision.
In American kitchens today, a sweet potato with a vivid orange-colored flesh that cooks up sweet and moist is called a yam.
Sweet potatoes—white-fleshed or orange-fleshed—can be prepared just like a potato: baked, simmered, steamed, fried, and roasted.
Sweet potatoes have a sweet-spicy flavor and they are excellent when paired with savory dishes that need a touch of sweetness such as turkey or pork.
Choose. Choose sweet potatoes with smooth, firm skins and no blemishes or bruises. Small and medium-sized sweet potatoes taste better than large ones which can be fibrous. Avoid sweet potatoes that are withered, wrinkled, sticky, damp, or sprouting.
Dark-orange skinned sweet potatoes have orange flesh (erroneously called yams) can be baked, boiled, roasted, sautéed or fried as chips. This sweet potato will cook up moist and sweet.
White-skinned sweet potatoes are thin skinned and have pale yellow flesh. They will become dry and crumbly after cooking and will not taste sweet. This sweet potato is similar to a white baking potato.
Store. Sweet potatoes will keep for up to 2 weeks in a cool, dry, dark, and well-ventilated place. But they are best used within a week of purchase. Sweet potatoes should not be refrigerated.
Prepare. Cook a sweet potato just as you would a regular potato—roast, boil, mash or bake. (White varieties can be substituted for regular potatoes in most recipes.)
- To bake a sweet potato: Scrub the skin and pat it dry. Prick the skin several times with a fork. Bake at 350° F directly on an oven rack or in a shallow pan until soft when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. Add butter, salt, and ground black pepper before serving.
- You can make a sweet potato pie by baking or steaming the orange-fleshed sweet potato, then beating the mashed flesh together with brown sugar, egg, and cream; then bake in a pastry shell.
- You can mash boiled sweet potatoes and potatoes together for extra smoothness—add grated ginger and a little ground cardamom.
- Sweet potatoes can be peeled before or after they are cooked.
- Sweet potatoes go well with bourbon, brown sugar, butter, ginger, honey, orange, pecans, rosemary, rum, and spices.
Nutrition. The sweet potato is high in vitamins A and C.
The botanical name of the sweet potato is Ipomea batatas.
(The true yam is a large, starchy tuber from the botanical Dioscorea family. “Yam” is an English adaptation of nyami, the Senegalese word for the African tuber–which is bland and dry.)