When I was younger, I disliked sweet potatoes for the same reason I disliked many carrot dishes…they were too sweet. I would say “I didn’t like sweet potatoes,” and huff around a bit. What I meant was that I didn’t like them prepared with brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, or any additional sweetness. I just never said that. So I went around for most of my childhood liking almost all foods, and even getting the nickname “The Bottomless Pit” for my voracious appetite, but sweet potatoes never really made it on my plate.
Now, things changed when sweet potato started to become more of a “fad food” and sweet potato fries started popping up everywhere. I’m honestly surprised that McDonald’s and Burger King never jumped on the sweet potato bandwagon Though, maybe they did and I never noticed. Sweet potato fries were where I discovered that sweet potatoes, while naturally sweet, don’t always have to be treated like a semi-dessert. Yes, sweet potato pie is amazing (when done well) but I don’t want to taste that as a side all of the time.
Since becoming aware of the savory power of sweet potatoes, I’ve come to love these delicious and healthy tubers. They are incredibly versatile — they can go very sweet or super savory, and even pair nicely with super spicy. I actually don’t use them as much as I should, though I can’t find as many different varieties locally as I wish I could. If anyone knows a local farmer who grows various varieties of sweet potato, let me know.
Now, let’s explore sweet potatoes with the understanding that sweet potatoes ARE NOT YAMS!
Did you know…
Sweet potatoes and yams are not the same — botanically they are two different tubers though they oftentimes get mislabeled in stores. Sweet potatoes actually belong to the bindweed or morning glory family. So, they are actually more closely related to the flowering vines that can overtake your garden than regular potatoes. Oddly enough, regular potatoes are in the same family as peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Native to the tropical regions of the Americas, sweet potatoes are now grown around the world, especially in Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia. They are an extremely important crop in regions where there is rampant vitamin A deficiency, like parts of Africa.
Besides simple starches, raw sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and beta-carotene (which the body uses to produce vitamin A). They also have moderate amounts of other micronutrients, including vitamin B5, vitamin B6, and manganese. When cooked by baking, small variable changes in micronutrient density occur to include a higher content of vitamin C.
Buying & Storing
When shopping for sweet potatoes, look for ones that are firm, heavy for their size, and free of soft spots, dark spots, or mold. Store sweet potatoes in a dark or dimly lit, cool, dry, well-ventilated place for up to several weeks. Do not store in plastic or refrigerate. Temperatures below 50 degrees will result in off-flavors, and excess moisture will encourage sweet potatoes to rot or sprout permanently. Do not scrub, clean, or wash them until just before preparation. Excess dirt may be removed without water prior to storing using a dry paper towel.
Scrub the outside of the sweet potato with a stiff-bristled vegetable brush or a scouring pad (rough side of a sponge) and rinse under cold water. Remove any bad or soft spots and peel the sweet potato if your recipe or preparation calls for it. If you’re baking your sweet potatoes whole (wrapped in foil) or are turning them into sweet potato fries, you don’t need to peel them.
Microwaving: clean the potatoes and pierce their skin with a fork in several places. Place up to 4 potatoes directly on a paper towel on the rotating turntable in a star or spoke pattern. Cook the sweet potatoes on high until tender — 5 to 9 minutes for 2 potatoes, 10 to 13 minutes for 4 potatoes. Flip and rearrange them after each set of 5 minutes as needed. Once they are cooked, leave them in the microwave, cover them with a towel, and let them stand for 5 minutes.
Baking: scrub the skin and cut away any damaged areas. Place the sweet potatoes whole or halved (cut side down) in a rimmed baking sheet. Or, loosely wrap each one in foil and place them directly on the oven rack with a pan underneath to catch caramelizing drips. Bake at 350°F for 40 to 50 minutes until the centers are soft when a knife is inserted. Larger potatoes will take longer to finish. Serve plain or with butter mashed into the soft inside. Skins can be eaten if cleaned before baking.
Steaming: scrub, cut into quarters (or large chunks), and place in a pot with a steamer basket over an inch of boiling water and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Let them cool enough to remove peels. You can also peel them beforehand, but that is up to personal preference. Serve them plain or drizzled with butter and a tad of maple syrup, lime juice and salt, or a red pepper and ginger sauce.
Boiling: scrub sweet potatoes, drop them whole, halved, or quartered into a pot of boiling water, and cook, covered, until tender. The time will vary greatly depending on the size of the sweet potatoes and what size pieces you’re boiling. Expect it to take about 20-40 minutes, but make sure to check them every 5 minutes after they’ve been cooking for about 15 minutes so they don’t overcook. Peel them before serving (or you can peel them beforehand and then boil them).
Roasting: scrub, peel, and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes. Toss in oil, salt, and pepper (or any other seasonings you might prefer), spread out on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast in your over at 425°F for 25-35 minutes or until golden brown and tender. Stir or flip the pieces every 10-15 minutes to ensures even cooking and browning.
Hint: To bring out maximum sweetness when roasting or baking, place sweet potatoes into a cold oven and then turn on the heat. This maximizes the time for the starches to be transformed to sugar before the high temperature denatures the enzymes responsible for this process.
Note: Sweet potatoes can substitute apples, potatoes, or squash in most recipes.