The Q&A Archives: Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes

Question: Are all the sweet potatoes and yams in the supermarket in fact all sweet potatoes? How can I tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Can you tell from color or size? If there are two separate root crops are they prepared one fried, boiled like the different white potatoes? Are the canned ones sweet potatoes or true yams?

Answer: Botanically speaking, yams (Dioscorea) are technically different from sweet potatoes (Ipomoea). When it comes to grocery store labeling, I too end up confused! In fact we don't usually see true yams where I live except in specialty grocery stores. Instead, according to "The Joy of Cooking" we are seeing different types of sweet potatoes. Usually we call the copper or purple skinned ones with relatively soft, orange insides "yams" -- and these tend to taste naturally sweet. We call the paler or yellow or brownish skinned ones with whiter innards "sweet potatoes" and they are less sweet. Most recipes can be made with either one, with the notation that "yams and sweet potatoes are best baked, steamed, grilled or microwaved" -- so I guess it is just a matter of personal taste, although we like the sweeter candied yams for Thanksgiving!

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