Guide to sweet potato varieties: how to choose, prepare and store them
The humble sweet potato is both delicious and nutritious. It’s also not a potato at all.
Harold McGee wrote in “On Food And Cooking” that the root vegetable native to northern South America is the “second most important vegetable in the world”. And according to Lisa Kingsley in EatingWell, “Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables in the world.
In the United States, they are grown primarily in North Carolina and Louisiana, and although sweet potato is a staple in grocery stores year-round, they are at their best in the fall and early winter. .
Here’s what you need to know about this awesome root tuber.
–— Types of sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes come in a variety of colors, both inside and out. Their skins can be different shades of brown, yellow, orange, red or purple. The flesh also varies and can be creamy white, bright orange, or dark purple.
The varieties can be classified into two categories: firm and tender. Firm sweet potatoes generally have a thin skin and pale flesh and, unsurprisingly, will stay firm when cooked. Sweet varieties encompass those you typically buy at the store, with a thick copper skin and bright orange flesh. They are called “soft” because they retain much of their moisture when cooking, resulting in a creamier interior.
Here are a few you might come across:
Beautiful eyes. While the name may convey an air of chic, it is the most common strain in the United States. “The Beauregards have purplish red skin and a dark orange interior,” Elazar Sontag wrote for Serious Eats. “Their flesh is slightly more stringy and juicier than some other varieties when cooked, so they’re good for mashing and incorporating into baked goods and desserts.” And while they certainly are, they’re also a great all-purpose sweet potato.
Jewel. These have lighter skin than the Beauregards and similarly colored flesh. On the flavor side, they’re slightly less sweet than the top-produced strain, but the two are interchangeable when it comes to recipes, whether it’s for a holiday casserole, a quesadilla-pizza hybrid, or a quick hash.
Garnet. Named for their red-purple skin, this variety is easy to spot. Similar to the previous two, garnets have a bright orange flesh. However, “They’re even wetter than jewelry or Beauregards, which makes them perfect for baking projects,” Sontag wrote.
Murasaki. These Japanese sweet potatoes have a reddish purple skin and white flesh. It is one of the drier “firm” varieties than the orange fleshed varieties. When cooked, their texture is much closer to that of a regular potato than soft sweet potatoes.
Okinawa. These sweet potatoes typically have a dusty tan skin that hides a shiny purple flesh that adds a lot of aesthetic appeal to any dish they’re used in. Like white-fleshed sweet potatoes, purple-fleshed varieties also enter the farm camp.
– Sweet potatoes vs yams
Maybe my biggest culinary pet peeve calls a sweet potato a ‘yam’. Real yams and sweet potatoes are completely different foods, and most people in the United States have never encountered them first. (Even as a professional cook, as far as I can remember, I didn’t.) “Real yams are the starchy tubers of tropical plants,” McGee wrote. “They are rarely seen in traditional American markets.” The ones you can find here tend to be imported from the Caribbean and have rough bark-like skin.
The confusion stems from traders in the 1930s. Until then, only white, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were grown in the United States. But when the tender, orange-fleshed tubers were introduced, farmers looked for a way to differentiate the two and started using the term “yam” to identify these new vegetables. The impact of that decision has been ingrained in society’s vocabulary to this day, with “yams” on sale across the country and recipes for dishes such as candied yams rising in popularity every Thanksgiving.
I’m all for the evolution of language over time, but I can’t stand naming a word for something new to you when that word already describes something completely different. Thus, the candied sweet potatoes from my festive table respond to their real name.
– Selection and storage
When buying sweet potatoes – after deciding whether you want a soft or firm variety – you should look for ones that have smooth, tight skin and are free of soft spots, bruises, cracks, or signs of sprouting. It’s best to avoid the sometimes gigantic specimens you might encounter, as smaller sweet potatoes (4-8 ounces) tend to be less starchy and more moist than larger ones.
Sweet potatoes keep best in a cool, dark storage space that is kept at around 50 degrees, and they can last three to six months there. But unless you have such a cellar, it is best to store them at room temperature in a dark space and should be consumed within a week or two. (Sweet potatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator as they can dry out and develop an unpleasant flavor.)
When you’re ready to cook, scrub the sweet potatoes under cold running water with a fruit and vegetable brush. You can leave the skin on for more nutrition or remove it with a vegetable peeler, but if not, they’re ready to roast, fry, mash, steam, or use however you see fit.