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Yams vs Sweet Potatoes (the Epic Battle)

They’re both root vegetables and when you cut them open, they may be the same color. Their names are often used interchangeably, but yams and sweet potatoes are not the same things at all. In the foodie world, there’s a bit of a battle between yams and sweet potatoes. And when you’re around a foodie, you better not mix up the two! Find out how they’re different, what makes them different, how to cook, with them both, and why it matters so much that you get it all right.

Related: Types of Sweet Potatoes | What Goes with Potatoes | Sweet Potato Casserole Recipe | Cinnamon Sweet Potato Bread Recipe | Types of Potatoes

What Are Yams?

A close look at a couple of yams with a few slices.

Yams are native to Asia and Africa. They’re related to lilies and grass plants. Yams are typically the size of a large potato, but they can grow as big as 130 pounds in size. This actually happened once in 1999. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams have somewhat scaly, rougher skin that is usually black or brown in color. Yams typically grow in an oblong shape with rounded ends. They’re a great vegetable for storing because they can remain edible for up to six months.

What Are Sweet Potatoes?

Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family and they grow in shades of white, yellow, purple, red, or brown with a skin that’s somewhat smooth and yellow, red, or orange in color. They are also oblong in shape but have tapered ends. Native to North America, sweet potatoes were widely eaten by European settlers in the U.S. back in the 1600s. They’re also not actually potatoes. Real russet potatoes are members of the nightshade family, a totally different plant family from both sweet potatoes and yams.

Pieces of sweet potatoes on a wooden table.

There are two main types of sweet potatoes: firm or soft. Sweet potatoes that are firm stay firm even after cooking. The soft sweet potatoes become very soft and moist after cooking.

There are many varieties of sweet potatoes, usually classified by their color. White sweet potatoes can be cooked and eaten like standard russet potatoes. White sweet potatoes are a little drier than regular russets. Purple sweet potatoes have a slightly chestnut-like flavor. They can be boiled, roasted, sauteed, or fried.

How Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes Different?

The confusion between yams and sweet potatoes actually began in the U.S. Firm types of sweet potatoes were grown in the U.S. first. When soft varieties of sweet potatoes were first grown, enslaved people in the southern U.S. began calling them “yams” because they look like the yams they were familiar with from Africa. To this day, soft varieties of sweet potatoes are still called “yams,” even though they’re still sweet potatoes.

Now, soft sweet potatoes that are marketed as “yams” are required to also include “sweet potatoes” on their labeling. If you live in the U.S., you may have never eaten or seen a real yam, the root vegetable from Asia and Africa.

How to Cook With Sweet Potatoes

A close look at cooked Japanese sweet potatoes.

Both sweet potatoes and real yams are versatile root vegetables that can be steamed, boiled, roasted, or fried. Sweet potatoes are most often baked, mashed, or roasted to create both sweet and savory dishes. Sweet potato pie and sweet potato fries are very common recipes, though sweet potatoes are also used to make vegetable mashes and soups.

Sweet potatoes can be eaten raw. Yams, however, should be peeled and cooked. Some of the proteins in yams can be toxic. It’s necessary to cook them to remove all this toxicity and make yams completely safe to eat.

How to Cook with Yams

A batch of sliced candied yams.

It is becoming easier to find yams in supermarkets these days, but real yams are far less common than soft sweet potatoes are called yams. A staple of African cuisine, yams are most commonly roasted, fried, and boiled. They’re a usual dessert ingredient in Eastern cooking and may even be sold as yam powder or yam flour. This flour is used to make the dough.

Yams vs. Sweet Potatoes Nutrition

Even the nutritional value of yams and sweet potatoes is highly similar. Raw sweet potatoes are about 20 percent carbohydrates, three percent fiber, and about 1.5 percent protein. Sweet potatoes have almost no fat. A 3.5 ounce serving of sweet potatoes is about 90 calories, 20 grams of carbohydrates, and two grams of protein. They’re also packed with vitamins and minerals, including Vitamins A, B, and C and magnesium, iron, and potassium.

Yams are about 24 percent carbohydrates with the same about of protein as sweet potatoes and about four percent fiber. A 3.5-ounce yam is about 116 calories, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and 1.5 grams of protein. They also contain Vitamins A, B, and C, along with minerals like iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Sweet potatoes have slightly fewer calories than yams. Just one serving of yams will give you almost all the Vitamin A you need because these are vitamin-rich vegetables. Yams, however, are richer in minerals like potassium.

Are Yams and Sweet Potatoes Interchangeable?

So, can you use yams instead of sweet potatoes in recipes? If you can find actual yams and not just soft sweet potatoes, yes! Real yams and sweet potatoes can easily be substituted for each other in most recipes, though the flavors and textures will change.

You may need to make some small adjustments, such as adding more liquid to pie filling or adding more dry ingredients to get the right texture. You will also notice a difference between sweet potato types. Firm sweet potatoes have a much different texture from soft sweet potatoes, which are being marketed as yams.

How to Freeze Sweet Potatoes and Yams

Sweet potatoes frozen in a block of ice.

When frozen, sweet potatoes and yams will stay edible for up to 12 months. Clean them, boil them for about 10 minutes and let them cool before dicing them. Next, place them in a freezer bag to store them. You can also bake them and freeze them whole.

A Battle of the Foods

So now that you know which is which and how to tell the difference between the two, which side do you choose in the battle of yams and sweet potatoes? These two similar foods have a lot to offer on their own so there’s no reason to put them against each other. Now that you know so much much about yams and sweet potatoes, you can enjoy them both!