8 Ways to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams

Nov 20, 2015 at 4:07 p.m. ET
Image: Egal/Getty Images, Sirichai_asawalapsakul/Getty Images

Sweet potatoes. Candied yams. Both are common holiday dishes, but what the heck is the difference between a yam and a sweet potato?

Honestly, it's kind of confusing, but we're here to walk you through it.

1. Where would you find it?

True yams, which aren't related to sweet potatoes, are very rare in the U.S. If you're at a major chain grocery store, the "yams" you see are probably sweet potatoes. If you're at a Caribbean, Asian or African market, however, the yams may actually be yams.

2. Check for the color

Most yams are white inside. Scratch the skin with your fingernail. If it's white, it may be a true yam; if it's orange, it's probably a sweet potato.

This can get confusing, though — there are white and purple sweet potatoes, just as there are reddish and purplish yams.

3. Look at the skin

Sweet potatoes usually have a relatively smooth skin that's tan, copper or red in color. Yams tend to have a dark brown/gray skin that's much thicker, stringy or barklike than the skin you'd find on a sweet potato.

4. Search for the label

At your typical grocery store, you'll often find harder, paler sweet potatoes next to vibrant, softer-fleshed "yams." But those yams are usually just a different variety of sweet potato that was labeled "yam" to differentiate between the two. If that's the case, the USDA requires that sweet potatoes labeled as yams also have a second "sweet potato" label on them. They may also be called garnet or jewel yams, but this really means they're just a soft variety of sweet potato. Either way, check the container they're in for that second sweet potato label.

5. Test the texture

If you're trying to figure out if what you're eating is a sweet potato or a yam, take a hint from the texture. Sweet potatoes labeled as yams are usually very moist and soft after cooking. Regular sweet potatoes are creamy, like a Yukon Gold potato.

Yams, on the other hand, tend to be starchy and dry when cooked.

6. Taste the flavor

Sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes labeled as yams are far sweeter than true yams.

7. This is a sweet potato that is often labeled as a yam

sweet potato yam
Image: Steve Johnson/Flickr

Smooth copper skin; bright orange flesh.

8. This is a true yam

true yam
Image: iita-media-library/Flickr

Rough, barklike skin; pale flesh.

Keep these tips in mind next time you go grocery shopping, and you'll never be confused by sweet potatoes and yams again.

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