Every time I spot a recipe that calls for either sweet potatoes or yams, I always wonder the same thing: What's the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Is there one? It turns out, yes, there is — several, in fact, and they're pretty significant. Although the two veggies are frequently treated as interchangeable, I suspect that's because most of us have never encountered an actual yam before. Like, in our entire lives.
Was your mind just blown? Because mine kind of was.
How did I learn this brain-busting piece of information? Well, it all started with a handy-dandy (and adorable) video from the Huffington Post. Featuring some unbearable cute animation from Eva Hill, it walks us through five major differences between sweet potatoes and yams. Yams, you see, are an entirely different plant — they're of the family Dioscoreacea, while sweet potatoes belong to the family Convolvulaceae (aka the morning glory family). They also come from entirely different parts of the globe — yams hail from Asia and Africa, while sweet potatoes are grown in the tropical Americas — and they taste totally different.
So: Why the confusion? It's actually kind of our own fault. According to an earlier HuffPot article, sweet potatoes in the United States typically come in two varieties: One with “a copper skin with an orange flesh” and one with “a golden skin with creamy white flesh.” The first is sweet and soft; the second is kind of crumbly. Weirdly, though, the orange ones have been called “yams” in the United States since the colonial era, and as such, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ended up labeling them as such in order to distinguish the two varieties. While it's true that these days, the USDA requires labels identifying sweet potatoes as yams to also include the words “sweet potato,” odds are that whatever you're eating… it's not an actual yam.
Check out a few ways to spot the difference between sweet potatoes and yams here, and scroll down to watch the full video. Good to know for Thanksgiving feast planning, no?
1. They Look Different on the Outside
We all know it's what's on the inside that counts, but for the purposes of sweet potato/yam distinction, you'll want to pay attention to the outside, too. Of particular note is the fact that yams are hairy (although likely not in quite the same way seen here).
2. Yams Are Kind of Tough to Find
That's why it's likely that the yam you got from the grocery store is actually a sweet potato. Also, the sweet potato is kind of a jerk about it.
3. You Shall Know Them By Their Taste
For one is sweet and moist, and the other is starchy and dry. Let it be known, for the Great Vegetable God has deemed it so.
Watch the full video below: