Let’s be honest. The sweet potato is not the most alluring of vegetables. Misshapen and covered in dirt and roots, it practically overflows from produce aisles in fall. Despite its earthy appearance, this sweet tuber remains one of America’s most popular Thanksgiving dishes. Flavorful and versatile, the sweet potato has become one of my favorite vegetables (I’ll take a basket of sweet potato fries any day over French fries). I’m also delighted to have discovered different ways of serving them (good riddance candied “yams!”).
Since Thanksgiving is around the corner and people are deciding on which starch to serve at the holiday table, I decided to dig around and find the scoop on this iconic vegetable: how to select, store and prepare them and the differences between sweet potatoes and yams (they are frequently confused).
One of the joys of eating sweet potatoes is knowing that I’m also getting a dose of wholesome nutrients in every bite. One cup of mashed sweet potato has about 250 calories and nearly 31 milligrams of beta-carotene, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, sweet potatoes are fat-free and a good source of potassium, vitamin C and fiber.
Though sweet potatoes are available year-round, fall is the ideal time to buy them. When choosing sweet potatoes, select ones that are small to medium in size. Look for smooth skin and avoid any with white strings, which indicate that the potato is too mature. Older ones will toughen up and lose their flavor.
Have you ever cut into a sweet potato and discovered a tough core? If so, it was probably stored in the refrigerator. The best place to store them is in a cool, dry spot like your cupboard or pantry. Buy them up to a week before cooking, although they can be stored for up to two weeks before they begin to spoil.
IS IT A SWEET POTATO OR A YAM?
Though the names are often mixed up, the two are distinctly different. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family, whereas true yams are related to lilies and grasses. Yams are mostly imported in the U.S. and found in specialty/international markets. Compared to a sweet potato, a yam is very starchy, has drier flesh and is less sweet.
Two main varieties of sweet potatoes are typically found in stores. One has light yellow skin with pale flesh and a dry texture similar to a baking potato. The other, more familiar variety, has dark orange flesh, thick, reddish skin and a sweeter taste. Though stores sometimes label sweet potatoes as yams, they most likely are not. If you’re still confused (like me), check out this diagram from an article published on the Huffington Post. It’s pretty funny.
Clean potatoes with warm water and scrub with a vegetable brush. The skin can be left on or peeled off, depending on the recipe. I tend to leave the skin on when baking or sautéing, as it is a good source of fiber.
Appreciated around the world, sweet potatoes have an abundance of flavor and are especially versatile. They can be deep fried, puréed, steamed and baked, or served in stew, soup and stir-fry. Street vendors in China grill them in large iron drums, while in Japan they are eaten boiled or delicately fried and served as tempura. In Korea, sweet potato starch is used to make noodles. In Egypt, baked sweet potatoes are drenched with honey for a sugary snack.
One of my favorite, easy ways to cook sweet potatoes is to chop them up in cubes (skin on), toss them with olive oil, sea salt and thyme, then bake them in the oven with sliced carrots. It’s a simple yet delicious way to prepare them. I’ve already got my sweet potato recipe picked out for Thanksgiving, and I look forward to testing it. I also dug into our recipe archive and found a couple of interesting ones to share:
What are your memories of this iconic vegetable? Do you have a favorite sweet potato recipe, or maybe a not-so-favorite one?