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All About Sweet Potatoes How to Use Sweet Potatoes

Updated on October 19, 2016

Sweet Potatos and Yams

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes | Source
Yams | Source

Sweet Potatoes or Yams

Sweet potatoes are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

First of all sweet potatoes are not yams, the true yam is a starchy root vegetable mostly grown in Africa. Yams are black or dark brown in color on the outside and white on the inside, although they can be pinkish or yellowish on the inside as well. The outside of a yam appears almost tree bark-like (although it is still a soft consistency when cooked). Yams are only slightly sweet.

Sweet potatoes are native to Central America and Christopher Columbus was probably the first to spread them around in the new world and the old. They are mentioned in the logs of Columbus’ fourth voyage. Sweets made it to Spain by 1500 and were later tried in the cooler climes of Britain and Belgium with no success. Sweets need a hot moist environment to thrive and to this day they are not a big item in Europe, not even in the warmer areas of the Mediterranean. In the tropics and subtropics sweets have become an important crop. Early Spanish explorers spread sweets around Southeast Asia and now they are integrated into many cuisines including China and Japan. In southern Kyushu today it is commonly called kara-imo, meaning Chinese potato; but in the rest of Japan it is called satsuma-imo (Japanese potato).

Sweet Potato
Sweet Potato
ce of Spades Ornamental Sweet Potato vine
ce of Spades Ornamental Sweet Potato vine

Chinese vendor selling baked sweets

The Plant

Sweet potatoes have been grown in the United States for over 300 years. Firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced here in the States before soft varieties. The firm sweet potato is larger more oval-shaped and has a light brownish, orange or pinkish skin on the outside. The inside is white, yellowish or pinkish and is drier when cooked. The soft sweet potato is the one we eat most often; it may be longer and thinner, red or dark pink on the outside with orange flesh on the inside. It is these softer, sweeter, moister types that are usually labeled “yams” to differentiate them from the other variety of sweet potatoes. The common story is that African slaves had already been calling the ‘soft’ sweet potatoes ‘yams’ because they resembled the yams in Africa. What actually happened is the Africans were using a Senegalese word “nyami” meaning “food” and nyami was misunderstood as yam. When the sweet potatoes began to be sold commercially the name stuck, now producers that sell “Yams” are required to also put sweet potato on the label.

This plant is an herbaceous perennial vine, belonging to the same genus as the Morning Glory flower common in many gardens. Family: Convolvulaceae, Genus: Ipomoea, Species: I. batata. The sweet potato is the only important food crop from the genus Ipomoea and many other members of the genus are poisonous.

Herbaceous plants die back at the end of the growing season and perennials will return each spring (assuming you didn’t dig it up for dinner). The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin whose color ranges between red, purple, brown and white. Its flesh ranges from white through yellow, orange, and purple. Some of the vines have purple foliage and are used as attractive garden plants. Sweet potato varieties are classified as either ‘firm’ or ‘soft’. Soft’ varieties become soft and moist when cooked. It is the ‘soft’ varieties that are often labeled as yams in the United State.

Japanese | Source
Pumpkins and Sweets
Pumpkins and Sweets | Source

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Types and Storing Sweets

In spite of what you will see repeated all over the web and in books, a sweet potato is not a root, it is an underground stem! “The proof is that like potatoes and water chestnuts sweet potatoes “give rise to stem buds and sets of leaves from the eyes, which are arranged in a tight spiral around the long axis. Only stems do this.”1

These are the common commercial varieties of sweet potatoes:

The most common sweet potato. Light reddish skin with light orange flesh. Very smooth skin, firm sweet potato.
Newer commercial variety. Rose colored skin, a little darker than Beauregard, orange colored flesh. Good quality.
Porto Rico
Older variety known for great taste. Light copper color with orange flesh.
Deep orange skin with deep orange flesh. Very sweet and soft. Great for pies and other sweets.
Carolina Ruby
Deep reddish-purple skin with orange flesh. Relative of Beauregard.
O Henry
White skin sweet potato with white flesh. Newer variety with great promise. Resembles baking potato.
Japanese Variety
New Very hard to find. Deep purple skin with white flesh. Very firm sweet potato. Buying and Storing Sweet Potatoes


Sweet potatoes are almost never graded for size which makes them a difficult product for restaurants and other food services.
SIZE Look for a small to medium sized potato with smooth skin, free of blemishes.
SKIN If the skin is wrinkled it is an old potato, already losing moisture.
STORAGE Sweet potatoes don’t store well so they’re not a product to stock up on. To store if possible keep them dry and dark at 55 degrees. At this temperature sweets will last a month, at normal room temperature they should be used up within a week.
REFRIGERATION Do not store in the refrigerator, at lower temperatures some of the starch will start turning into sugar. (Although they will last longer in the refrigerator there is a trade off of flavor)
AIRTIGHT Do not store in anything that is airtight, they need to breath or they will spoil. The plastic bags that they are sold in are perforated for airflow so they can be used for storage.
ODORS Keep sweet potatoes away from anything with a strong odor, fresh herbs, onions and garlic will all lend their flavor to the sweet potatoes.
FRUITS Keep sweets away from apples and any fruit that gives off ethylene gas as that will encourage the sweets to sprout.
PEEL OR WASH? There is no reason to peel sweet potatoes and the skin contains much of the nutrition
FATS recent research indicates that we need to eat some type of fat with sweets in order to transport the antioxidants, for a baked sweet potato a teaspoon or two of olive oil or butter will do.



Spicy Baked Sweet Potatoes Recipe

Sweet potatoes are incredibly nutritious and deserve a frequent place on your menu. One of the best vegetables you can eat, they're loaded with anti-oxidant carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.



  • Nonstick baking spray
  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed, cut into thin wedges
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar

·         1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, depending on taste

·         Finely ground sea salt, to taste

·         Freshly ground pepper, to taste

·         ½ teaspoon of dried oregano (or other herb to taste)   Use some imagination with the herb or spice you choose to flavor this dish, some of my favorites are Zataar, Five Spice Powder, Turkish Seasoning, (Available from Penzey’s Spices) and Cumin. By choosing a compatible spice you can bring the sweet potatoes into balance with the rest of the meal, cumin for Mexican food, five spice with Chinese etc.

Preheat oven to 450° F.

Spray baking spray on large baking sheet.

Combine oil, sugar, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in small bowl.

Place potato wedges in large bowl; pour oil mixture over potatoes and toss to coat.

Spread potatoes in single layer on prepared baking sheet.

Bake potatoes for 15 minutes; remove from oven and turn potatoes.

Bake again until potatoes are tender and slightly caramelized, about 15 more minutes.

Transfer potatoes to serving dish and season to taste with salt and pepper; serve immediately.


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    • mandalinlady profile image

      Susan 9 months ago from Dover Delaware

      This was very interesting. I always prepared sweet potatoes on the sweet side. I like making them with different unusual fruits. I did not know there were so many different types of sweet potatoes, or the history of them. Very interesting hub.

    • dinkan53 profile image

      dinkan53 6 years ago from India

      Now a days lot of pesticides are to be used for the proper growth of vegetables and fruits.Sweet potato is one which are grown with the use of small quantity of pesticides and fertilizers and there by making it a safe mode of food. I saw sweet potato in super markets, have to try it and thanks for the recipe.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 6 years ago from Citra Florida

      I'm learning a lot of this stuff myself, after 40 years in food service, still learning!

      Thanx for reading Faye

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 6 years ago

      I never knew there were so many varieties of sweet potatoes. I better follow you around...I'm learning lots of new things.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 6 years ago from Citra Florida

      I think sweet potatoes are finally coming into their own, all those recipes with marshmallows and large amounts of sugar stopped people from creating new dishes. I do prefer the simplest recipes for these

      Thank You all for reading

    • sangre profile image

      Sp Greaney 6 years ago from Ireland

      I love sweet potatoes. When you roast them with any other vegetable, they are delicious...

    • Jillian Barclay profile image

      Jillian Barclay 6 years ago from California, USA

      Dear Chef,

      I do love sweet potatoes! Your method of preparing them is very similar to mine. They are so flavor-filled and naturally good, that they require very little help!

      I thoroughly enjoy your background information on the foods I eat! I am learning so much from you, my friend!