the great sweet potato mystery


My grocery store likes to play a trick on me. It has these two tubers sitting next to each other in the dry veggies area, right above the random peppers and beans and shrooms. It has named the one on the left, “sweet potato” and the one the right, “yam.”

But each time I go to the market, I pause for about 5 seconds and just stare. This is usually the point that one of my favorite produce section people comes up to me with their standard, “How’s your day? Need some help?” because they’ve undoubtedly seen me look perplexed before. I’m staring because I know something is amiss.


I know that when I see recipes in books, on blogs, in magazines, etc. that the “yam” is being used in the recipes. It’s bright orange. It’s unmistakable in photos. When they say “sweet potato” they are using what my market calls a “yam.”

So I pause, think that the collective “WE” of the food universe must be wrong and grab the one that’s properly labeled (aka. the yellow “SWEET POTATO”) and go home. And then I cook it, and realize that once again, that while this is definitely a sweeter potato than normal, it’s definitely not a sugary sweet treat. So perhaps I messed up. Or did I?

Who is right? The market? The recipes? Me?


The answer: they both are.

Yup. How awesome is that? No more pausing perplexed looks in the potato section for me! But since my market doesn’t want to call one “Sweet Potato 1” and the other “Sweet Potato 2” in either a label or a scanner code, we get “Yams” and “Sweet Potatoes.”

And the worse part? An actual YAM is something totally and completely different and is actually WHITE inside. Yeah. I’m not even trying to go there.

And now that I know that I can’t go wrong choosing either one when a recipe calls for a sweet potato, I just need to know which one to pick for which occasion.

I did a little bit of a taste test with my favorite way to cook them… sweet potato chips.

Just slice your sweet potato of choice into 1/2” slices. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line them up on a cooking sheet.


Brush (or “mist”) both sides of them with olive oil and sprinkle on some sea salt.


Bake them for 20 minutes. Flip them over, turn the heat up to 400 degrees, and bake them for another 15-20 minutes.


The end result is a wonderfully delicious potato side that is so much yummier than a standard cooked sweet potato… and it took less time too!

The yellow sweet potatoes are more like a normal potato variant… just a slight bit of sweetness but addictive nonetheless. The orange sweet potatoes bring back memories of candied yams and a decadent winter treat. Pick your poison, because both of them are great!

So the next time you see an orange sweet potato in a recipe photo, but can only find yams in your store, don’t swear under your breath. Just grab it and know better and share the lesson with your friends.

p.s. this is what a REAL YAM looks likes (thanks Bon Appetit)


  • Rhey

    My market labels them “white sweet potatoes” and “orange sweet potatoes”. I like how they think.

  • Terri

    I actually grew up eating the yellow-looking ones aka the yams. They are very common in the Caribbean. My mother never served the orange ones. We only had the orange ones on Thanksgiving. We usually boil yams. We eat it with fish, other root vegetables or boiled green bananas and other crazy West Indian side dishes. :)

  • Kristin

    Ahhh thanks for solving the mystery. I grew up with the orange one because they are beloved and widely found in Japan. They are a favorite winter snack – roasted over a grill and eaten straight up. I am always quite perplexed when I see them as “yams” and then the white ones are thrown into the mix (I don’t think I’ve ever eaten those in my life) and then I’m really confused.

  • Kira

    Hahaha this made me laugh! It reminded me of a story a friend told me about a Thanksgiving day family argument that ended with his mom banging her fists on the dinner table while shouting “THEY’RE YAMS, DAMMIT!” And yam is just a funny word. Yam yam yam.

  • Brandi

    I’m so glad you just posted this. I thought I finally had figured it out last month that the less orange ones were indeed the “true” sweet potato… when in fact they both are… oh the mysteries of life