Yams Versus Sweet Potatoes

The New York Times weighs in on the important question of whether yams and sweet potatoes are interchangeable. It explains the difference:

“Sweet potatoes are New World tubers [a member of the Morning Glory family] that were adopted by enslaved Africans on the American continent. They could be grown in the temperate climates; they could be stored in mounds and used as needed to supplement meager rations. When cooked in the ashes of a dying fire, they were a sweet treat at the end of a bone-tiring day of toil. Most important, sweet potatoes were taken to the hearts and stomachs of Africans and their descendants in the United States because they recalled the true yam of Africa.

The yam, a large hairy tuber that bears no botanical relationship to the sweet potato [a member of the lily family], grows mainly in tropical and subtropical climates and is of primary importance to many West African societies. From Ghana to Nigeria, yam festivals celebrate the desire for a bounteous harvest and the continuity of life. In languages of the West African coast, including Wolof in Senegal and Umbundu in Angola, the tuber is so popular that some variant of the word “yam” simply means “to eat.” [As an example, “something to eat” is nyami in Guinea. ]”

There are approximately 200 different varieties of yams with flesh colors varying from white to ivory to yellow to purple while their thick skin comes in white, pink or brownish-black. I, myself, prefer yams, and in fact, eat so many, that perhaps I, too, should just use the word to mean “to eat.” On the online library Innvista I found that:

“In Papua New Guinea, the people have managed their crops for thousands of years without disturbing the forest around them. The women may prepare them, but yams are strictly grown and harvested in secret by the men away from the women. At special yam festivals, prize tubers can be as long as six feet and weigh as much as 200 pounds. Reflecting the status of the grower within the community, these ceremonial yams are the focus of exchanges and given as gifts to the women at the end of the festivities”.

Many people eat yams at Thanksgiving, popularly in a casserole with marshmallows on top. I myself prefer a casserole in which yams are mixed with with butter, maple syrup, and heavy cream. You can find an easy recipe for something similar here.

There are some other recipes using sweet potatoes or yams here. I am particularly intrigued by the recipe for Thanksgiving Praline Yams.

By the way, I cook yams in the microwave. (Okay, I cook almost everything in the microwave.) I just pierce it a few times with a knife, wrap it in a paper towel, and cook it about 8-10 minutes, turning it over at the halfway mark. The skin then peels off easily and it’s ready to go.


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19 Responses to Yams Versus Sweet Potatoes

  1. bermudaonion says:

    Shows what I know – I use sweet potato and yam interchangeably. Thanks for straightening me out.

  2. Steph says:

    I know you are a yam fan, but last night while doing our last minute grocery shopping for Thanksgiving, we picked up sweet potatoes, and I didn’t even look to see if yams were available! I’ve certainly seen yams in the can, but I’m not going to go there!

    We are planning to do the marshmallow & praline topping for our sweet potatoes (I guess we are “go big or go home”), which I admit are delicious and also SUPER American (I ate plenty of sweet potatoes before coming to Nashville, but never with marshmallows on top!)… I think I will do a sweet potato/yam taste test one of these days so we can see the difference for ourselves! Clearly, it must be done!

  3. Sandy says:

    Little did I know I’d learn something on here this morning! I will let my guard down here and tell you a secret. I don’t like sweet potatoes! I know, I’m a freak.

  4. I had no idea and I’ve been cooking for decades. Like Kathy, I’ve been using them interchangeably. I thought they just had different names. Like Steph, I’m going to do a taste test one of these days. Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.

  5. JoAnn says:

    I knew they were different, but use the word interchangeably. Mine (whichever they are!) are in the oven now. I’ll mash them, mix in a bunch of other goodies, cover with a pecan crumble topping, and bake it tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Ti says:

    There is a huge difference between sweet potatoes and yams! I find the textures to be very different once cooked and sweet potatoes are less sweet. I prefer sweet potatoes, pureed with butter and just a bit of brown sugar and nutmeg. YUM! I am not making them this year though as I am the only one that eats them and I end up eating them all week. Instead, I am making sugar glazed carrots which are very close but not pureed.

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving Jill!

  7. Lisa says:

    I never knew there was that much of a difference. I’m going to have to see if my grocer carries both then try thtem at the same time. I pop which ever it is I get in the oven just like baked potatoes and then serve with butter and brown sugar. So yummy!

  8. athomewithbooks says:

    I cook yams in the microwave too, and usually slice them up and add some butter and brown sugar. I got the recipe from my MIL, and I’m so looking forward to eating some of her yams tomorrow.

    I like sweet potatoes less because they don’t have the same sweetness and richness to me, plus they have a different texture. I do find it ironic that the sweet potatoes are the ones that taste less sweet. 🙂

  9. Julie P. says:

    I knew there was a difference but I can never keep it straight! Very helpful post!

  10. diane says:

    No one in my family likes either — isn’t that weird. We are squash and turnip fans LOL Happy Thanksgiving

  11. softdrink says:

    Sounds like sweet potatoes are wanna be yams.

    I can’t even remember the last time either one made an appearance at our family’s Thanksgivings.

  12. Staci says:

    Yams…sweet potatoes…they all taste good to me!!

  13. ds says:

    I knew there was a difference–but don’t ask me to tell them apart! I usually bake them like Idahos & mash ’em with butter. Pretty good!

    However you make them, enjoy your Thanksgiving!

  14. Jovenus says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!!

  15. gwendolyn b. says:

    Oh, it’s sweet potatos all the way for me! Particularly the white sweet potato which has a chestnut-like flavor. I do find that they are sweeter when baked in the oven than in the microwave – something about the carmelization of the sugars. But I’ll nuke ’em if I have to!

    Great post! Hope you enjoy your yams!

  16. My ex was a lover of both yams and sweet potatoes. He did not descriminate as he believed they were all the same. He often put one in the woodstove ashes to cook. No kidding. It must have been his AA roots. (No pun intended)
    I also cook them in the microwave.
    I learned how to make sweet potato pie from his mother and yum yum was it good.

    I also, like Gwendolyn like the white sweet potatoes.
    Love the post.

  17. Rita K says:

    I mashed mine, and put a combination of chopped pecans with brown sugar and marshmallows – in alternating rows – the recipe is from Southern Living – baked in the oven. I will send you a photo.
    PS. I do the microwave potato trick all the time because my spouse loves them that way. And yes, there is definitely a difference between yams and sweet potatoes!

  18. Also, there’s certain properties in yams that are helpful for those afflicted with Sickle Cell Anemia, which is a genetic disease in high concentration in West Africa. When Africans were brought over here, they tried to substitute sweet potatoes, but they were not beneficial in the same way.

  19. Pingback: Rhapsody Place Knife Ps | Cedrickrigger266's Blog

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