Yams vs Sweet Potatoes: What’s the Difference?

Every Thanksgiving there always seems to be a consensus of confusion surrounding yams and sweet potatoes. Are they the same thing? Is it sweet potatoes or yams that I pair with the marshmallow side? If you’ve ever been there, don’t worry, so are a lot of other people. 

sweet potatoes and one long yam

Are yams and sweet potatoes the same thing?

Let’s cut to the chase, they are definitely NOT the same vegetable. Yes, they are both roots (or angiosperms aka flowering plants), but they are completely different. The main confusion stems from American grocery stores mislabeling what yam and sweet potatoes are. Most of the time any thin-skinned root with orange or even purple skin is often labeled as sweet potato. 

But don’t freak out, we’ll tell you the main differences between sweet potatoes and yams, so the next time you’re at the store you can pick the correct root for your dish! 

The main differences between sweet potatoes and yams

What are yams?

long unpeeled yam root

Yams are very starchy tubers that originated from Africa and Asia. It’s actually a bit difficult to find real yams in American grocery stores. Here are some types of yams that might help figure out how to spot them at the market. 

Types of yams

  • Ube: thick and dark skin with light and dark purple centers. This is typical in Filipino and other Asian cuisines. Be wary when purchasing at stores because they will often confuse ube (or purple yam) with purple sweet potatoes (or Japanese purple sweet potatoes), which are completely different. 
  • Nagaimo: This Japanese variety is also called “mountain yam” and has tan and hairy skin with white centers. Unlike other types of yams, this can be eaten raw. 
  • African yams: These types of yams have traditional dark brown and thick skins with white centers. They are typically boiled, fried, roasted, sun-dried, or made into a paste among other ways of cooking. African yams need to be cooked to be eaten safely.

Where are yams from?

Yams are native to Africa and Asia. There are a lot of different varieties throughout Africa and Asia depending on the region. 

What do yams look like?

peeled and sliced yams

Yams are actually more like cassava than sweet potatoes. They typically have rough and thicker (often brown) skin with starchy white or purple centers depending on the variety. Yams come in various shapes and sizes that range from small mandarin-sized yams to a large tube-shaped root that’s as long as a 12-inch ruler and anywhere in between. 

What do yams taste like?

Since yams have high starch content, they are less sweet than sweet potatoes. They taste very similar to cassava or traditional potatoes. 

How yams are used in cuisine

A majority, if not all, yams need to be cooked in order to be eaten. Yams can be prepared and cooked through boiling, baking, roasting, and frying. Some of my favorite ways to cook yams are ube crinkle cookies, ube cake, ube halaya, and ube waffles

What are sweet potatoes?

This very distant cousin of the potato is a type of root vegetable that has a thinner skin and a sweeter center than yams. 

Types of sweet potatoes

  • Okinawan sweet potato: This Japanese purple sweet potato is known for its tan skin and very vibrant purple centers. It’s sometimes confused with ube, but it’s definitely a sweet potato because it is super sweet. We’ve used this in our taro milk tea and ginataang bilo bilo
  • Camote or Kamote: In the Philippines and Peru, this type of sweet potato has a traditional reddish-orange skin with bright orange centers. 
  • Satsuma-imo: A Japanese variety of sweet potato with garnet/red skin and creamy white centers. 

Where are sweet potatoes from?

Sweet potatoes originated from Central and South America and have been around for over 5,000 years. These days, you can find various sweet potato varieties in many grocery stores. 

What do sweet potatoes look like?

It’s Important to note there are two types of sweet potatoes: firm sweet potatoes and soft sweet potatoes. 

  • Firm sweet potatoes: Tan or red skin with pale flesh that is waxier consistency when cooked. This variety is sometimes called “white sweet potato.” 
  • Soft sweet potatoes: Darker copper skin with vibrant orange centers that are super soft when they are cooked. This variety is typically what you find at your local grocery store when they are generally labeled “sweet potatoes” or “orange sweet potatoes.” 

No matter which type of sweet potato you choose, most sweet potatoes are long, round, and have tapered ends.

What do sweet potatoes taste like?

Sweet potatoes typically have a vanilla-like and nutty-like flavor to them as they are fairly sweet. Some sweet potatoes are filled with enough sugary contents naturally that they can caramelize if you roast it long enough.  

How sweet potatoes are used in cuisine

Filipino ginataan dessert

Similar to yams, sweet potatoes can be used in a variety of ways in different cuisines. You can boil them, mash them, roast them, fry them, and so much more! Here are some of my favorite ways to eat sweet potatoes: sweet potato fries, Filipino ginataan bilo bilo, and roasted Japanese sweet potatoes

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