Sweet Potato vs Yam: What is the difference?


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Sweet potato vs yam, what is the difference between the two? Sweet Potatoes and Yams might be some of the most commonly confused root vegetables of all time. Keep reading to find out the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.

A Yam and Sweet Potato cut into slices

Are Yams Sweet Potatoes?

No they aren’t. Yams and sweet potatoes grow similarly, look alike and the words “yams” and “sweet potatoes” are often interchanged as a description to fit the cook’s preference. There are times when I visit the produce aisle of the grocery store to find they offer bins of both sweet potatoes and yams but both bins contain the same vegetable! Aside from the shape, these are two very different veggies.

In North America there are mainly two varieties of sweet potatoes; a soft, copper skinned potato with a dark orange flesh and a firm , golden skinned potato with a lighter flesh.  There are also purple sweet potatoes and other varieties. At the grocer, the copper skinned sweet potato is labeled as a yam, but is it really a yam?

Yams and Sweet Potatoes scattered together on a board

Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Yams are native to Asia and Africa, they are related to lilies and grow as roots of a flowering plant. Yams grow from a regular potato size to gigantic proportions of nearly 5 feet long! The skin of a true yam is tougher and bark like and the flesh is white, red or purplish in color. A true yam is not as common in North America, but you can find them in specialty or international stores.

Sweet Potatoes are a member of the morning glory family. They have a firmer skin and can be an assortment of colors including copper, purple, white, orange or red. The color of the flesh varies as well to include orange, yellow, purple and white! As the copper skinned sweet potato most resembles a yam, the name was applied to the tuber to differentiate it from it’s lighter counterpart.  This explains why we (mistakenly) label one as a sweet potato and one as a yam.

Most likely, all yams and sweet potatoes that you use from the grocery store are sweet potatoes. Often, the copper skinned sweet potato is referred to as yam, or sweet potato yam, and these are a firmer version of sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes with the lighter skin and yellow insides are softer. They cook very differently.

To know what you want to buy when faced with a sweet potato and a sweet potato yam in the grocery store, it is important to know what you want to prepare. If you are looking for a classic Thanksgiving dish of Sweet Potato Casserole or Sweet Potato Pie, purchase a copper skinned sweet potato yam. They will give you the texture that you want!

To easily identify which of these tuberous root vegetables you want to buy, take note of the skin. You want to buy the darker skinned potato for a firm potato that has a firmer texture after cooking (but can easily be made into Mashed Sweet Potatoes), and a lighter skinned potato for.a fluffy and creamy flesh.

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Sweet Potatoes and Yams baked and ready to serve

References:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission

California Sweet Potatoes

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Holly

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Holly is a wine and cheese lover, recipe creator, shopping enthusiast and self appointed foodie. Her greatest passion is creating in the kitchen and making deliciously comforting recipes for the everyday home cook!

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