What's the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Consider this history lesson as you're shopping for your sweet potato pie or candied yams.

By: McKenna Uhde

Food Nework Kitchen's Holiday One-Offs, Candied Yam.

Photo by: Kate Mathis ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Kate Mathis, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

There's a bit of confusion in the food world around yams and sweet potatoes. What exactly is the difference — and what exactly are we cooking with? Let us lay some root vegetable knowledge on you.

Sweet potatoes originated in North America, first joining market shelves alongside the white potato as far back as the late 1600s. But back then, the sweet potato was also white or yellow in color. In the 1930s, a new orange version was cultivated, and to differentiate it from the white sweet potatoes, farmers borrowed the slang phrase "yams" that slaves from West Africa had used to describe them. Sweet potatoes reminded the Africans of an African vegetable called "nyami" (watch Alton Brown's segment on this here!).

Today, the name "yams" has stuck as an interchangeable term for "sweet potatoes" in America, but you won't often find African yams in American grocery stores. Today's American sweet potatoes have that widely-recognized orange flesh (but can also come in a variety of colors, like yellow or purple), and are known for their smooth potato-like texture and sweet flavor. Yams, on the other hand, have thick, brown, bark-like skin and yellow coloring, and are much starchier and are closer to the texture of yucca. Yams can easily weigh up to 55 pounds — imagine trying to carry that home from the grocery store?

If you do happen to come across true yams in your supermarket, experiment with cooking them like you would a sweet potato, but don't expect the same texture. Generally speaking, if you're reading a recipe (from Sweet Potato Pie to Candied Yams and everything in between), it means you can pick up sweet potatoes to make it — even if they're labeled "yams" at the grocery store.

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