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Sweet Potato vs Yam: What's the Difference?

Sweet potatoes and yams have been mixed up for so long their names are often used interchangeably. How do you know which one to buy when one company labels them yams but another company calls them sweet potatoes? We'll explain the difference between yams and sweet potatoes and settle the debate once and for all. As you update your seasonal menu and prepare your business for the holiday rush, familiarize yourself with this information so you can label your dishes correctly.

Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes the Same?

No, yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing. In fact, they aren’t even in the same plant family. A true yam, like a potato, is an edible stem tuber. A sweet potato is a root tuber, similar to a carrot. They have different skin textures, different flesh, and different culinary uses.

If you still aren't sure, an easy trick to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams is to look for eyes or buds on the skin. Yams will develop eyes just like a regular potato but a sweet potato will not. Instead, sweet potatoes may have fine roots on the surface just like beets or carrots.

Yam vs Sweet Potato

Yams have rough, dark brown skin that is often compared to tree bark. Their flesh is dry and starchy like a regular potato. Sweet potatoes have smooth reddish skin and a sweet flavor. You don't have to worry about mixing them up while you're shopping because yams are very rare in American grocery stores. What you see labeled as yams in stores are actually sweet potatoes.

What is a Yam?

Yams

Yams are edible stem tubers native to the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. Most yams are grown in Africa, but yams imported to North America come from the Caribbean. Because yams have dry, starchy flesh, they can be stored in humid environments without fear of spoilage. This makes them an excellent staple food in the tropical climates where they are grown.

There are many varieties of yams, but the most cultivated types have white, yellow, or purple flesh. Yams can grow to be quite large, weighing many pounds and measuring multiple feet in length, or they can be the size of a standard potato.

Are Yams Potatoes?

Yams are not potatoes. They are both stem tubers, but they belong to different botanical families. The potato is a part of the nightshade family, which also includes peppers and tomatoes. Yams belong to a plant family of flowering vines that surprisingly includes grasses and lilies.

What Do Yams Taste Like?

Compared to sweet potatoes, yams have an earthy, neutral taste. They can be mildly sweet but mostly take on the flavor of the seasonings used in preparation. Yams must be cooked before eating because they are toxic when eaten raw. The leaves and stems are also poisonous and must be removed.

Yams are extremely versatile and the flesh can be fried, roasted, or boiled. In West Africa, boiled yams are mashed or pounded into a paste to be added to soups. Raw yam slices are left out in the sun to dry and then ground into powder. The yam powder is added to boiling water to create a thick, starchy paste used in a side dish called amala. Amala is a thick, dark brown pudding served alongside soups.

Where To Buy Yams?

To find yams in North America, you'll have to visit a specialty store. Caribbean or African food markets carry yams and they're often cut into chunks or slices and wrapped in plastic. You can also find yams being sold online, just make sure they are true African yams and not sweet potatoes.

What Are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are edible root tubers that originated in South and Central America. They are widely available in North American grocery stores, and the majority of sweet potatoes sold in the US are grown in North Carolina. You can buy fresh or canned sweet potatoes year-round, but their peak season is late October through December. More closely related to the carrot than to the potato, sweet potatoes have tapered ends, and the most common variety has orange flesh with smooth reddish-brown skin. Unlike yams, sweet potatoes can be eaten raw and their leaves can be cooked just like carrot or beet greens.

What Do Sweet Potatoes Taste Like?

Sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet flavor that is enhanced through cooking. Roasting or baking results in caramelization of the natural sugars for an even sweeter taste. Sweeteners like brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, or even marshmallows are commonly used in sweet potato dishes to complement their unique flavor.

Why Do Yams and Sweet Potatoes Get Mixed Up?

You'll find that sweet potatoes are often labeled as yams. There are folks who insist they eat yams every year at Thanksgiving even though they've never seen a true yam. Why do they get mixed up if they are so different? There are a couple reasons that the word yam is used so widely as a nickname for the sweet potato.

When African slaves came to the Americas, they brought the word for yam with them. Later, when different varieties of sweet potatoes were being sold commercially, the word yam was used to differentiate softer sweet potatoes from firm sweet potatoes. If you see yams and sweet potatoes in the fresh produce section, these are actually just two varieties of sweet potatoes.

Types of Sweet Potatoes

The copper-colored potato with orange flesh is probably what comes to mind when you think of the sweet potato, but there are many other varieties ranging in color from white to deep purple. Some of these types are even labeled as yams, but they aren't true yams. You'll find two major types of sweet potatoes at North American grocery stores:

  • Orange sweet potato - Orange sweet potatoes are commonly labeled as yams. This variety is also called the soft sweet potato and has reddish-brown skin with bright, orange flesh.
  • White sweet potato - Also called firm sweet potatoes, white sweet potatoes have light, golden skin and pale flesh. Unlike soft sweet potatoes, this variety remains firm and waxy after cooking.

Now you know that you can't accidentally buy a yam instead of a sweet potato because true yams aren't available in most grocery stores. You've also learned that the word yam is sometimes used to differentiate the soft variety of sweet potato from the firm variety. You can shop with confidence and name your sweet potato dishes correctly because you understand the difference between these two vegetables.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips | By Michale Ferguson
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