Recipes,  Veggies

What is the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and a Yam?

What’s for Dinner?

Mark and I are hosting our first Thanksgiving this year, and the argument between the New England meal versus the Southern meal has begun.  You mean we have to stuff the turkey???  What about cornbread dressing?!  We will have jellied cranberry AND homemade cranberry sauce.  The biggest decision we need to make now is between our starches:  Mark’s family always has mashed potatoes and butternut squash, we always have sweet potatoes.  No matter what the outcome, we will have sweet potatoes.  Now I need to know, what is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam?

Grocery Store Confusion

When I show up to the grocery store, I’m totally confused.  There are sweet potatoes, yams, and Japanese potatoes.  I always thought sweet potatoes and yams were the same thing!  In Texas, I don’t remember anything being called a yam.  What I have always called a sweet potato is called a yam here!  Isn’t that a Yankee thing?  I need some answers.

Sweet Potatoes vs Yams

I did some research and found that yams and sweet potatoes are very different. As it turns out, what I have called a sweet potato my whole life really is a sweet potato.  I love being right.  Apparently there are only sweet potatoes at American grocery stores, and yams are really only found at international markets (or maybe a Whole Foods).


Often called sweet potatoes and vice versa, yams are starchier and drier in taste and texture.
Photo Courtesy of SF Gate

According to my food guru, Alton Brown, yams are native to Africa and Asia.  They are firmer and drier than what we know and have a kind of dark, scaly skin – almost like bark – and are white on the inside.  Also, they are not as sweet as what we usually eat here. They remind more of jicama or yucca.  Yams are members of the lily family.




Traditional Sweet Potatoes

What we see in the store as yams and sweet potatoes are really all sweet potatoes.  The original sweet potato grown in the United States is the one with light skin and white flesh.  These are normally labeled as sweet potatoes in grocery stores, and are firmer than the other varieties.  All sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family.

What the Grocery Store Calls Yams

What are typically labeled as yams are actually sweet potatoes too. This is the variety I grew up eating.  These are called soft sweet potatoes as well, and they were invented later in the United States.  They are softer and fluffier than the white fleshed sweet potatoes.  Because they were introduced later, grocery store labeled them yams to differentiate between the two varieties.

Other Sweet Potatoes

There are several varieties of sweet potatoes out there.  My grocery store here in California sells Japanese Sweet Potatoes, which are also called Jewell.  There are also Garnets, Cordners, Carolina Ruby – the list is endless.  They are all different shapes, sizes and colors.

The Verdict

Now that you are armed with all of the sweet potato yam knowledge, you will know exactly what to get at the grocery store.  You can’t be fooled by labeling!  I will always have a soft spot for the creamy, orange fleshed variety, but it’s important to pick the right potato for your recipe.

I am a Texan living in California with my husband Mark, my best pup Ziggy, and our two cats Marilyn and Goldie. I love reading, cooking, binge-watching great tv shows and staying up too late talking to my friends.


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