Culinary Arts

What’s the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams? Learn About the Root Vegetables

Written by MasterClass

Feb 18, 2019 • 5 min read

Though commonly mistaken for one another (and often mislabeled in grocery stores throughout the United States) sweet potatoes and yams are two completely different species of root vegetable. Neither are related to the standard white potato, either—though all three different vegetables can stand in for each other with varying degrees of success.

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What Is a Sweet Potato?

A sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a root vegetable belonging to the morning glory family and native to tropical regions of the Americas. It’s smooth outer skin ranges in color from dusty orange-brown to vibrant red to light yellow-beige, while the insides range from an immediately recognizable orange flesh to purple and even pale white. Sweet potatoes are the official vegetable of North Carolina.

A sliced sweet potato

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Are There Different Types of Sweet Potatoes?

There are over 400 varieties of sweet potato around the world, including:

  • The Korean purple, which features a chestnut flavor when boiled.
  • The Creamsicle, whose pale white outer skin hides a sweet, sugary orange interior.
  • The Okinawa, a Japanese varietal with a vibrant violet flesh.
  • The Beauregard, one of the most familiar sweet potatoes on US shelves, with a rusty red outer flesh.
Different types of sweet potatoes

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What Is a Yam?

A yam is an edible tuber from the flowering plant of the genus Dioscorea, native to Africa and Asia, with 600 varieties worldwide. Wild yams, or Dioscorea villosa, are native to North America but its roots are not consumed; its leaves and vines are used instead as a medicinal herb.

Most frequently found in international markets, true yams can be identified by their large size and blackish-brown bark-like skin, though not unlike the sweet potato, they also feature white, purple, and reddish flesh. Yams are often a staple food in Caribbean diets, and a purple yam called ube is a cornerstone of Filipino cuisine, principally in desserts. They bear a slight visual similarity to cassava (also known as manioc), a woody shrub often ground into flour or used to make tapioca

Common Yam Misnomers:

  • Oca. In New Zealand, a local sweet potato varietal called the oca is often called a yam.
  • Taro. The tropical root plant taro is often mistaken for yams in Malaysia and Singapore; though it’s similar to yams in size, shape, and starch content, it belongs to the arum family.

Are Sweet Potatoes and Yams the Same?

While they may sometimes look alike, sweet potatoes and yams are indeed different root vegetables. They do, however, share some commonalities:

  • Richness of flavor. Both root vegetables feature in sweet and savory preparations where they are consumed, acting as a flavorful base for ingredients like maple syrup and marshmallows as well as herbs and spices.
  • Preparation method. Like most all root vegetables, sweet potatoes and yams are best roasted until crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They can also be boiled or steamed, but can turn mushy.

What Is the Difference Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams?

There are a few key differences between sweet potatoes and yams:

  • Texture. Yams tend to be starchy and dry, with more of a mild subtle taste when compared to the sweeter, creamier flesh of a sweet potato.
  • Nutritional value. Sweet potatoes are a rich source of fiber and a multitude of vitamins and minerals, including iron and vitamin C. They’re also high in beta-carotene, a beneficial antioxidant that delivers vitamin A once digested. Yams have comparably lower levels of beta-carotene, but are an excellent source of energy, thanks to its suite of B vitamins like B6 and B1. They also help to mitigate cholesterol levels.
Sweet potato fries

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4 Sweet Potato Recipe Ideas

  1. Healthy sweet potato “toast” recipe: A popular substitute for bread among the wellness set is thick slices of roasted sweet potato with various toppings. Toast the slices in a toaster or the oven until lightly browned, and top with everything from lemony mashed avocado and sliced radishes, to almond butter and chopped almonds, or even lox, red onion, and capers.
  2. Homemade sweet potato fries recipe: Wash sweet potatoes, and slice lengthwise into halves, and then into 1-inch wedges. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast at 400°F for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown and easily pierced with a fork. This can also be done with diced sweet potato for an easy addition to grain bowls or kale salad.
  3. Easy sweet potato pie recipe: This cousin of pumpkin pie is popular in the American South, and features all the familiar notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, with a slightly firmer filling traditionally provided by garnet sweet potatoes. Boil 1 lb sweet potatoes whole, until soft, about 30 minutes. Let cool, and remove the skin. In a large bowl, mix the sweet potato with ½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature until well-combined; stir in 1 cup sugar, ½ cup milk, 2 eggs, ½ tsp ground nutmeg, ½ tsp ground cinnamon, and 1 tsp vanilla extract. Beat until mixture is smooth and transfer to an unbaked 9-inch pie crust. Bake at 350°F for 50 minutes, until tester comes out clean.
  4. Candied sweet potatoes recipe: In a saucepan over medium heat, melt ½ cup brown sugar with ¼ cup butter, ¼ cup water, and a pinch of salt. Pour over sliced wedges or cubed sweet potato (about 4 medium) and place in a baking dish; cover with foil and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes; remove the foil and cook 10 minutes more or until potatoes are caramelized, crisp and golden brown.
Sliced yams in an iron skillet

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3 Easy Yam Recipes

  1. Ube pancakes recipe: In a large bowl, combine 1 ¼ cup flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp baking powder, 4 tbsp superfine sugar, and ½ tsp salt. Add 2 cups buttermilk and 1 beaten egg, and mix until well combined. Add 1 cup grated purple yam, and mix. Cook pancakes in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat for 3 minutes each side.
  2. Simple, roasted white yams: Halve yams lengthwise and place cut side up on a baking sheet or in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt, pepper, and a fresh herb like thyme or rosemary, then roast at 400°F for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.
  3. Battered yam fries recipe: Combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup rice flour, and 2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Whisk in 2 cups club soda until batter comes to preferred consistency. Meanwhile, lightly cook yams in boiling water for 5-10 minutes, until just tender. Let cool and slice into wedges, then dredge in batter and fry in vegetable oil over medium-high heat until crispy and cooked through. Remove from pan, season with salt, and repeat with remaining yam.