Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams: Is There a Difference?

February 4, 2014 | Other Goodies

Let’s end this mystery and great debate, shall we?

Are sweet potatoes and yams the same thing?
No, they are not.

It turns out even I was misinformed about these two terms throughout my entire life AND in culinary school.  I was always told that sweet potatoes are gold in color on the outside, and the flesh inside is a white color, and that yams are similar to sweet potatoes, but copper-brown in color on the outside, and bright orange on the inside.  It turns out, the bright orange ones are in fact sweet potatoes as well.

So what is a yam then?  Also a tuber, a yam (pictured) has a much harder and darker skin than the sweet potato (almost bark-like), and can have a white, red, or purple flesh inside.  Yams are used in similar ways to sweet potatoes and regular potatoes, where they are typically peeled, boiled, and mashed.  You will typically only find yams in African and Caribbean cuisines, as they originate from Africa; the yam got its name from the African word, “nyami,” which means, “to eat,” and when the African slaves were brought to the United States, they started calling our soft sweet potatoes (the orange ones) “yams” because of the similarity to their native tuber (size, texture, softness when cooked, both being tapered at the end)… and the name stuck.

Then why do the supermarkets refer to the orange sweet potatoes as yams?  Simple: to differentiate between the two varietals of sweet potatoes.   But you will find that when you see them labeled as yams, there is also a USDA requirement to have them labeled as sweet potatoes as well (which I actually saw in Whole Foods the other day… and in turn, is what prompted this blog post).  If you are looking for yams specifically, I recommend checking out an international market, as yams are not commonly found in regular supermarkets.

So there you have it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *