Sweet potato casserole with caramelized marshmallows, bourbon sweet potato pie, mashed ginger sweet potato and sweet potato biscuits. These drool-worthy sweet potato dishes were once something that only made their debut at the holiday table. According to a 2016 report by Statista, sweet potatoes have made a huge resurgence and we’re now enjoying them year-round. In the U.S. annual per capita consumption is now about 7.2 pounds.
The history of the sweet potato
Sweet potatoes are one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind. According to the Library of Congress, “The earliest cultivation records of the sweet potato date to 750 BCE in Peru. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, sweet potatoes were well established as “food plants.”
… more sweet facts
The sweet potato botanically is a dicotyledonous plant (has two seed leaves when it sprouts) a member of the morning glory family. The International Potato Center (yes, there is one) states, “world-wide there are about 6,500 sweet potato varieties, including wild, farmer varieties and breeding lines.” That is sweet indeed as there are more varieties available in markets, each with unique colors, textures and flavors.
I am what I am (but I’m not a yam)
Don’t get confused when shopping as the name yam and sweet potato are often used interchangeably. A true yam is not related to sweet potatoes and is native to Africa and Asia. Yams tend to be drier and starchier in consistency and most often only available at international markets.
Freshly harvested sweet potatoes can be found at your local farm market in the late Fall, October-December, when they are at their peak. Fortunately, these tuberous delights store well and are available year-round in markets.
Buying & Storing
When you are shopping, pick up the sweet potato and take a good look, they should be heavy for their size. Optimally look for those that are smaller or medium in size, as they tend to be less starchy. Avoid those that are bruised, have soft spots, are discolored or show signs of sprouting. Lighter skinned varieties tend to have a more mottled skin. Darker sweet potato varieties (orange and coppery toned skins) usually are more uniform in skin color.
When you get the home, don’t put them in the refrigerator, that tends to toughen them when they are cooked. Sweet potatoes store best in a cool, room temperature place, preferably in the dark. Place sweet potatoes in brown paper bags or wrapped in newspaper to optimize storage.
Sweet potatoes are higher in sugar content than white potatoes which is part of their appeal. For those that are trying to cut back on processed sugar in the diet, sweet potatoes are a good way to add natural sweetness to meals. Nutritionally they are an excellent source of antioxidants, vitamins A and C and a good source of fiber.
With a dizzying array of conventional, hybrid and heirloom sweet potatoes to choose from, it can be confusing. I’ve broken it down to five top favorites along with how to recognize them and ways to cook them.
1. Garnet sweet potato
Skin: Reddish orange color, smooth skin
Flesh: Orange colored, moister in consistency when cooked like squash
Try it: Baked whole, stuffed with chili or sautéed mushrooms, roasted, mashed or made into sweet potato pie with pecan crust
2. Jewel yam
Flesh: Deep orange, drier than garnet, mildly sweet
Try it: Baked, roasted, steamed, mashed with lime juice, cilantro and chili powder, sweet potato gnocchi, in risotto with sweet butter and thyme
3. Hannah yam
Also known as yellow Hanna or Sweet Hanna
Skin: Pale or light tan color with smooth texture
Flesh: White but turns yellow when cooked, a firm and dry variety, sweet
Try it: Mashed, stir-fried, roasted or deep fried, shredded and made into a breakfast hash with onion, bacon and rosemary
4. Japanese sweet potato
Skin: Purple smooth skin, fatter and more rounded in shape
Flesh: White, turns golden in color when cooked, very sweet, firm and dry in texture
Try it: Baked and mashed with a touch of sea salt, cubed and cooked in coconut milk with vanilla, cinnamon and ghee, roasted, low and slow over hot coals for a very sweet almost caramelized flavor.
5. Purple sweet potato
Skin: Purple tinged skin, more elongated in shape
Flesh: Purple flecked with white, dry, firm and dense, fibrous and earthy flavor
Try it: Mashed with maple syrup and chipotle powder, baked whole, roasted in wedges tossed with avocado oil, smoked paprika and garlic
A few more tips:
- Use a good stiff bristled scrub brush to scrub skins and wash off debris.
- When roasting whole, prick skin several times with a fork or tip of paring knife to prevent them from exploding in your oven, place them directly on oven rack and put a sheet pan underneath to catch any drips.
- Try boiling potatoes whole and slipping off skins when they are soft to maintain most nutrition and flavor.
- Use a spiralizer to cut them into noodle shapes and roast in oven to soften, toss with a delicious sauce.
Shred them up and make sweet potato pancakes, add them to muffins or mix them with other root vegetables; carrots, turnips, beets.
Sweet, savory, nutrient rich, versatile and inexpensive, it’s easy to understand why sweet potatoes are a delicious choice for any meal.
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