In Season: Sweet Potatoes

Amanda Harper


Picture a sweet potato. Go on, close your eyes and do it. It’s probably got brown skin and orange flesh. It’s good baked or made into fries, right? Or maybe you’re picturing a big ol’ can labeled “Yams.”

You’ve probably been taught that “yam” and “sweet potato” are basically interchangeable terms. Well, they are most certainly not. Yams have a much rougher, bark-like skin and their flesh is dry, neutral in flavor and starchy, like a potato; in fact, many yams have pale flesh just like an Idaho spud. 

Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, generally have thinner red-brown skin with beautifully orange flesh and a much sweeter taste.

Except there are sweet potatoes with white flesh. And also purple. (But, well, there’s also ube, which is a yam that’s completely purple. And neither is to be confused with the regular ol’ purple potato. Hoo-boy, that’s a lot of tubers!)

Why the confusion? In the early 20th century, Southern sweet potato growers adopted the African word, “yam,” to distinguish sweet potatoes from regular potatoes, especially for canned goods. And that solves the mystery of why you think you eat yams every year; canned sweet potatoes are often labeled as such in great, big letters… so big, you hardly notice the USDA-required label of “sweet potatoes” right under that.

I will concede that “yam” sounds way more interesting and does, indeed, remove a layer of confusion between sweet potatoes and potatoes. But if you bake up an actual yam thinking it’s a sweet potato, you’ll see why it’s a misconception that needs clearing up.

Yams are often used when a recipe needs a potato that will hold its shape after heating; they’re commonly served alongside braised meats or in Asian dishes. Yams can also be pounded into fufu, often called swallow, a traditional food of the African diaspora.

So why would you use anything other than the standard, orange-fleshed sweet potato you can reliably find at your local grocer? White-fleshed sweet potatoes tend to be a bit drier, so they’re good in recipes where you need to control for moisture, such as gnocchi or other pasta. Purple sweet potatoes are most often used simply for their beautiful color! As with any other vegetable, specialty varieties of sweet potato bring differences in sweetness and flavor.


Split-Topping Sweet Potato Casserole


  • 4 c. sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
  • 1 c. light brown sugar
  • 1/3 c. heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 T orange juice


  • 1/2 c. butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 c. pecans, roughly chopped
  • 1 c. light brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • mini marshmallows 

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 13x9” baking dish with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all sweet potato ingredients, stirring until fully incorporated. Pour into prepared baking dish.

In a clean mixing bowl, combine the pecan topping by mixing the butter, pecans, light brown sugar and flour. Crumble over half the sweet potatoes.

Spread mini marshmallows over the other half.

Bake for 25 minutes, until center is heated through and marshmallows have melted. (adapted from recipe by Joshua Grotheer)

Note: We love that this recipe basically gives everyone a bite of what they love; marshmallow fiends get their sweet, fluffy bite while folks who like a savory-sweet casserole get to enjoy their pecan-crusted dream. Finally, peace at the dinner table... for five minutes, at least.


Mediterranean Baked Sweet Potatoes


  • 4 medium sweet potatoes
  • 1 15oz. can chickpeas, drained
  • 1/2 T olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika

Garlic Herb Sauce

  • 1/4 c. hummus or tahini
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 3/4 tsp. dried dill
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced


  • 1/4 c. cherry tomatoes, diced
  • 1/4 c. chopped parsley
  • 3 T red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 T lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Rinse and scrub sweet potatoes, then half lengthwise.

Toss chickpeas with olive oil and spices. Place on foil-lined sheet.

Rub potatoes with additional olive oil. Place face-down on baking sheet. Roast until sweet potatoes are fork tender, about 25 minutes.

Add sauce ingredients to a mixing bowl; whisk to combine. If necessary, add water to thin to your desired consistency.

Prepare topping by tossing ingredients together, then setting aside to marinate.

Flip potatoes fresh-side up. Use a fork to lightly press down the insides, or slightly mash, if you wish. Top with chickpeas. Drizzle with garlic herb sauce, then lightly sprinkle with topping. (adapted from Minimalist Baker)

Note: This is a much more exciting alternative to a simple baked sweet potato. The sweet-savory combination is wonderful. This is great as a side or a meat-free main dish. If you want to serve it on your Thanksgiving table, skip the topping, as it may be a bit too bold by contrast.


THE Thanksgiving Side Dish

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 2 T maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 1/2 c. dried cranberries
  • 1/2 c. toasted pecans, chopped or halved

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil.

In a large bowl, combine garlic, olive oil, syrup and balsamic vinegar. Add sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and toss to combine.

Add sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts to baking dish. Roast for 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and add cranberries and pecans. Mix well, and return to oven for another 10 minutes. (adapted from Giangi’s Kitchen)

Note: As the title suggests, this is the perfect Thanksgiving side dish. It’s an easy recipe that’s fairly hands-off, but full of the flavors of the season.