What is the Difference between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

This is a question for the sages and the ages, with a lot of differing opinions.  In the U.S. the terms yams and sweet potatoes are often used interchangeably.  What most Americans think of as yams are actually orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.  Sweet potatoes are roots, though, while yams are technically tubers, which grow on the stem of the yam plant.  

Candied Sweet Potatoes

The two are similar in taste, and according to Jessica Harris, an African American expert in African American foodways, it’s likely that enslaved people in the South began using the two terms interchangeably, as the sweet potatoes approximated the flavor and texture of yams, which were more familiar to them.  Harris writes in the New York Times:

“Sweet potatoes are New World tubers that were adopted by enslaved Africans on the American continent. They could be grown in the temperate climates; they could be stored in mounds and used as needed to supplement meager rations. When cooked in the ashes of a dying fire, they were a sweet treat at the end of a bone-tiring day of toil. Most important, sweet potatoes were taken to the hearts and stomachs of Africans and their descendants in the United States because they recalled the true yam of Africa.”

Candied Sweet Potatoes

These days most yams are usually grown in the tropics, the West Indies in particular.  You can find them in Hispanic, Latin, or Caribbean markets in the U.S., but most yams sold in the average supermarket are botanically sweet potatoes.  True yams are usually huge, at least 1 foot long, and have white, starchy flesh.  

Candied Sweet Potatoes: Sweet, tender, and caramelized, these potatoes may be the best best part of the meal, no matter what else you are serving!

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Best Sweet Potatoes for Cooking

Choose sweet potatoes that are small to medium in size, very firm, without any dramatic roots sprouting from them.  They should have no cuts or bruises.  A darker orange color to the flesh usually means a sweeter flavor, and the level of sweetness can range dramatically.  Taste your sweet potato dish or at least your cooked sweet potatoes as you combine them into this dish, and adjust the level of sugar as desired.

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Candied Yams

If you can get your hands on some actual yams, go right ahead and sub them in for the sweet potatoes.  And whatever you choose to call this dish at your table – candied yams or candied sweet potatoes – even if it’s not botanically correct, it’s your Thanksgiving, and your tradition, and you should do as you please.

Candied Sweet Potatoes

What to Serve with Candied Sweet Potatoes:

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Other Sweet Potato Recipes:

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Candied Sweet Potatoes

Sweet, tender, and caramelized, these potatoes may be the best best part of the meal, no matter what else you are serving!
Yield: 10 People
Diet: Gluten Free, Vegetarian


  • 6 medium (about 5 pounds) orange-fleshed sweet potatoes , scrubbed
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter , cut into small pieces
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • Coarse or kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • ½ cup fresh orange juice


  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Prick each sweet potato several times with a fork. Place on a rimmed baking sheet, preferably lined with parchment or aluminum foil, and bake until tender, about 1 ¼ to ½ hours. Allow the potatoes to cool to room temperature, then let them sit out, loosely covered with a dish towel for at least 12 hours to become very firm.
  • Preheat the oven again, this time to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish, or other shallow 4-quart baking dish, or spray with nonstick spray.
  • In a small saucepan combine the butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, and cloves. Cook over medium heat until the butter melts and everything is well combined. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Peel the sweet potatoes (you should be able to peel the skin off with your fingers). Cut them into ½-inch thick slices. Place the sweet potatoes in the prepared baking dish and pour over the butter mixture. Toss carefully to keep the slices intact, so that the sweet potatoes are pretty well coated with the sauce. Rearrange the slices in the baking dish so that they overlap. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes until hot.
  • Remove the foil and drizzle the orange juice over the sweet potatoes. Use a spoon to baste the casserole with the sauce from the bottom. Bake, uncovered, for another 15 to 20 minutes until the top is golden (you can baste once or twice again if you think of it). Serve hot or warm.

Nutrition Information

Calories: 346kcal | Carbohydrates: 63g | Protein: 4g | Fat: 9g | Saturated Fat: 6g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2g | Trans Fat: 0.4g | Cholesterol: 24mg | Sodium: 130mg | Potassium: 826mg | Fiber: 7g | Sugar: 26g | Vitamin A: 32485IU | Vitamin C: 12mg | Calcium: 92mg | Iron: 2mg

The nutrition values are provided as an estimate. It is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional.

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