What's The Difference Between Sweet Potatoes And Yams?

Imagine this: you are at the store, prepping for your upcoming holiday dinners, and on your list of ingredients to buy is sweet potatoes. You spot them over in the corner of the produce section, tucked between the onions and garlic. But when you get over there, you see that the sign says "yams." But right next to those are the sweet potatoes, and they look very similar. So which one should you buy?

We talked to some root vegetable experts about the differences and similarities between sweet potatoes and yams to find out which one you should be buying for your recipes. Dr. Lorin Harvey is an assistant professor and a sweet potato specialist at Mississippi State University. Jessica Gavin is a food scientist and blogger. Here's how they explain the difference between sweet potatoes and yams.

What Is A Sweet Potato?

sweet potato batata
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"Sweet potatoes have a starchy texture and sweet flesh," Gavin said. "The major types are grouped by the color of the flesh, not by the skin." In the grocery store, you'll likely see orange, white, and purple. "They are short and blocky with tapered ends—football-shaped—with a sweet taste and moist and creamy texture when cooked," Harvey said.

They make for a great casserole and baked potato.

What Is A Yam?

yam, full length
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"Yams generally have a rough, scaly, and brown-colored skin with white to purple flesh," Harvey said. "They are often long and cylindrical shaped and can have off-shoots called 'toes.' Yams are not very sweet and have a relatively dry, starchy texture."

They are delicious in this candied yam recipe.

Differences Between Sweet Potatoes And Yams

sweet potato versus yam
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Beyond the visual differences, yams and sweet potatoes have distinctive flavor profiles. "Yams are less sweet than sweet potatoes," Gavin said. "They have a more earthy, neutral profile. You'll notice that sweet potatoes will have a softer texture that can feel mushy, whereas yams are drier and starchy like russets."

Scientifically, sweet potatoes and yams have a lot of differences also. "They are not related or even in the same plant family," Harvey said. "Sweet potatoes are considered storage roots and are grown from plant vine cuttings called slips. Yams are considered tubers and are grown from pieces of the tubers."

Similarities Between Sweet Potatoes And Yams

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Like Harvey pointed out, there are many more differences than similarities between sweet potatoes and yams. They are both grown in the ground, and that's about where the similarities stop. Here's where it gets confusing.

When you see a yam in the grocery store, it's most likely a mislabeled sweet potato. "The terminology is often used interchangeably," Harvey continued. "Several decades ago, the U.S. produced mostly white-fleshed sweet potatoes, and when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced, people called them yams to distinguish between the two." So no matter what, you're probably picking up a sweet potato in the grocery store.

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