What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Though in America the two terms are often used interchangeably, yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing. They aren’t even from the same family. Sweet potatoes are often called yams, but the two vegetables are very different. It is possible that you’ve never seen or tasted a real yam!
As a self-proclaimed sweet potato connoisseur I will help clear the confusion you may have about sweet potatoes vs. yams. Keep reading!
Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes The Same?
No, they are two very different vegetables.
True yams are edible tubers found in Africa and Asia from the dioscorea genus of flowering plants. They are commonly used in African, Latin American and Caribbean dishes. In West Africa they are a food staple like cassava/yuca and plantain. You may see them at the market labeled the African word Nyami or Namé.
Yams have thick rough bark-like brown skin and white or yellow-ish flesh. They are starchy when cooked, and have a mild flavor. Yams grow much larger than sweet potatoes. In African and Caribbean cooking yams are used in savory dishes like yam pepper soup and pounded yam.
Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, not tubers. A tuber is a thick stem of a plant, not the root. Sweet potatoes are the actual root of the plant, thick and delicious as they may be. Sweet potatoes are native to central or South America, and belong to the morning glory family.
Unlike yams, sweet potatoes have smooth skin, which depending on the variety can be orange, grey, or even purple. Sweet potatoes have flesh that tastes sweeter than yams. Depending on the variety sweet potato flesh can be white, orange, or even bright purple. There are so many different varieties of sweet potatoes: some are starchier and sweeter than others. More on the different varieties below. Sweet potatoes are used in both savory dishes and desserts.
Which is more nutritious?
Sweet potatoes and yams are both great sources of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and complex carbohydrates. Sweet potatoes have more vitamin C, and more beta-carotene than true yams. Yams boast higher levels of copper.
Both are nutritious starchy vegetables, and should be enjoyed as part of a balanced plant-based diet.
Why are Sweet Potatoes called Yams?
In U.S. grocery stores you’ll commonly find orange sweet potatoes called yams. You may even refer to them as yams yourself. Candied yams, anyone? I’ve heard two stories as to why sweet potatoes are called “yams”.
During slavery, enslaved Africans referred to the new sweet potatoes as “yams” because it reminded them of the African yams they used to eat. The name stuck, and Americans continued to call sweet potatoes yams.
I have also read that when the orange fleshed sweet potato was introduced, sweet potato growers called them “yams” to distinguish from the more commonly used (at that time) white fleshed sweet potatoes. I’ve even read that it was simply a way for one state’s sweet potato growers to differentiate their identical crop from the others.
Key Differences Between Sweet Potatoes & Yams
White, orange, or purple flesh
Commonly found in American grocery stores
Used in southern American cooking
Grown in the southern United States
Rough bark-like skin
White or yellow-ish flesh
Mild flavor, not sweet
Grow much larger than sweet potatoes
Found at African and Caribbean grocery stores
Grown in tropical climates
Used in African and Caribbean cuisine
Both are Easy to Cook
Sweet Potatoes and true yams are both amazingly easy to cook, they only require time. Yams are traditionally boiled or cooked in stews. Sweet potatoes can easily be baked, steamed, boiled, microwaved, air fryer, or steamed in an Instant Pot. Depending on the recipe and how you’ll eat it, you can cook it whole or cut it into your desired size. Cutting it up will decrease the cooking time and get you to the dinner table faster. Always check the tenderness of your sweet potato with a fork. The fork will slide all the way through when fully cooked.
Types of Sweet Potatoes
You will be hard pressed to find yams at your local mainstream grocery store if you live in the US. When you do find them, the store may only carry one variety. However, you will likely come across many varieties of sweet potatoes, all delicious. Here are the most common:
Jewel: lighter orange skin and flesh. High moisture content.
Garnet: darker orange to reddish skin, and orange flesh. High moisture content.
Beauregard: Most common in US stores. Darker orange skins and flesh. Starchier but still moist.
Asian or Caribbean: Purplish skins and yellowish-white flesh. Very starchy and sweet.
Okinawan: Grey darker skin and bright purple flesh. Starchy and very sweet. Also called purple yams.
Stokes: Purple skin and purple flesh. A fairly new variety.
The Best Sweet Potato Recipes
Sweet potatoes are not just for Thanksgiving. Sweet Potato Casserole topped with marshmallows is nice, but there are so many more ways to enjoy this wonderful root veggie! I’ve created many sweet and savory recipes using sweet potatoes. These are some favorite recipes of mine from over the years. Even more in my cookbook, Sweet Potato Soul!
While I don’t have any yam recipes myself, there are plenty of delicious vegan yam recipes out there. I’ve listed a few below.
Pounded yam with Egusi stew (https://www.vegannigerian.com/2013/05/iyan-egusi-soup.html)
African Yam Stew (https://theveganlarder.com/nigerian-peanut-yam-stew/)
Thai Yam Salad (https://healthythairecipes.com/mods-thai-yam-salad/)
Jamaican Yam Mash (https://thatgirlcookshealthy.com/mashed-yam-recipe-vegan/)