Yams and Sweet Potatoes: Is there a difference?
Grocery stores used to be so simple to me. We are out of food? I will get food! I could walk in with confidence, consult my list, fill my cart, and push my way to the check out stand without a single, solitary dilemma. Now I feel like I have to make a hundred different decisions. And that’s just to get through the produce section. Local? Organic? Conventional? Pre-washed? Spray-free?
The humble potato should be simple, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong. The whole yam vs. sweet potato mix-up is both fascinating and frustrating to me. Mostly frustrating. Different stores and growers label them different ways. Different parts of the country (and therefore recipes) call them different things.
I was determined to get to the bottom of this. So I sat down to do some focused research (aka Googling around while eating a bowl of ice cream and watching Psych).
Here are four tubers, a colorful mixture labeled as yams and sweet potatoes, available at my friendly New Seasons grocery store. However these examples, along with most tubers labeled as “yams” in the United States are, in fact, sweet potatoes. So even those Jewel & Garnet Yams are actually sweet potatoes.
Wait… Let’s back the potato truck up.
In the mid-20th century when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced to the United States, they were marketed as “yams” to avoid confusion with the white-fleshed sweet potatoes Americans already knew and ate. However, both are from the same botanical family. The flesh of a sweet potato can be white, orange, or purple. The USDA requires that orange-colored sweet potatoes be labeled as “sweet potatoes” in addition to “yams” which is obviously super helpful. Or as my dad would say, “Clear as mud!”
Jewel & Garnet Yams – These have brownish-orange skins and bright orange interiors. While labeled yams, they are actually sweet potatoes and are even more common than the standard white-fleshed sweet potato. These varieties are a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food, packed with vitamin-A (more than carrots!). Sweet potatoes also contain high amounts of calcium, fiber, iron, and vitamin-E.
Sweet Potatoes – Same botanical group, different color. They are also long with tapered ends but have a light tan skin and a yellow interior, similar in color to a Yukon gold potato. They are a bit drier, starchier, and less sweet than their orange relatives. Sweet potatoes grown in the United States come from Florida, California, North Carolina, and Louisiana. Sweet potatoes are on the Clean Fifteen list, but Costco currently has a great price on 10-pound bags of organic sweet potatoes for $7.99!
Japanese Sweet Potatoes – With a deep purple skin and a white interior, these potatoes are super sweet.
Yams – Most of us have probably never even eaten a real yam. I know I haven’t. While you could hunt one down in the US, they are more common in African or Caribbean markets and diets. There are dozens of different yam varieties, some growing up to 8 feet long and weighing over 200 pounds! They have a rough, bark-like skin and rounded ends; the flesh is more dry, bland, and starchy and less sweet than sweet potatoes.
So what’s the difference between yams and sweet potatoes? Everything and nothing.
Basically, when shopping in a US grocery store, if it looks like a sweet potato in size and shape, it probably is, even if it is labeled as a yam. These “yams” can be substituted for sweet potatoes in recipes because… well, they are sweet potatoes. True yams, on the other hand, are a different animal entirely. They may be found in ethnic or specialty grocery stores, but are more common in international markets.
Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes (Amazon) by Diane Morgan is packed with information, such as nutritional content, storage tips, and recipes, on 29 different roots. This would be a great resource cookbook to have on your kitchen shelf.