sweet potatoes vs. yams and which is which?

Amys Gluten Free Pantry

Because its fall, and Thanksgiving is closer than you think, you’ll be seeing several recipes with sweet potatoes as the star ingredient. So because I love the origin of recipes and food itself, I thought it’d be helpful to talk about the sweet potato vs. yam debate. Not a debate really, more of a centuries old misunderstanding.

Which is Which?

First off, sweet potatoes and yams are from different families. The latter is related to lilies and grasses while the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family.

The next time you go into your supermarket, you’ll see a variety of sweet potatoes, but usually two main varieties – one with a reddish skin and dark orange flesh, and another with a lighter skin and lighter flesh, both with tapering ends. These are two of the many varieties grown in the U.S., mostly in North Carolina, California, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Yams, on the other hand, are grown primarily in Africa, although some cultivation can be found in South America and the Caribbean. Sadly, chances are you’ve never tasted one unless you’ve travelled. They’re cylindrical, usually white fleshed, with a rough, almost hairy skin.

Are you Confused Yet?

Growing up, many of us remember Candied Yams for Thanksgiving. Yep, those were sweet potatoes too. Sorry to burst your bubble. So why the confusion?

The good people at Epicurious went to Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission to shed some light on this mystery. Apparently, “The prevailing theory seems to date to the slave-era South, where sweet potatoes were established as a crop and dubbed “yams”, a shortened form of the African word “nyami”, which means ‘to eat'”, McIver said.

Misinformation dies slowly, so centuries later, the term “yam” has prevailed. The FDA isn’t super interesting in differentiating between the two tubers, so I promise you, the next time you’re in your supermarket of choice, you’ll find sweet potatoes masquerading as yams.

How to Store Them

Like standard potatoes, sweet potatoes will last longer in a dry cool place. Always remove them from the plastic bag you may buy them in and place them in a well ventilated container (a wire basket is great). It’s imperative you keep them away from onions which make them age faster. Want to try a cool experiment with your kids? Pop any type of potato into bowl of onions and watch them age and grow “eyes” in a matter of days.

My Favorite Recipes so Far

Sweet Potato Casserole
Sweet Potato Latkes
Sweet Potato Hash

What are your favorites?



Fuller, Janet Rausa. “What’s the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?” Epicurious.com. N.p., 5 Nov. 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2016. <http://www.epicurious.com/ingredients/whats-the-difference-between-sweet-potatoes-and-yams-article>.



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