Sweet potatoes were originally cultivated in Mexico and Central and South America. Columbus discovered the sweet potato during one of his voyages to the West Indies. Spain eventually cultivated the potato resulting in a profitable business with France and England. The Portuguese are responsible for carrying sweet potatoes to Asia and Africa where they remain an important staple of the diet even today.
When I started writing this post my goal was to clear up a common misconception about sweet potatoes. Whole Foods Market among others insist yams are considered a sweet potato. However; chef’s on the opposing side of the debate heatedly disagree that not all sweet potatoes are considered equal. So, who is right?
Apparently the term ‘yam’ is used loosely in the United States to differentiate between the white and orange varieties. Yet, they are all sweet potatoes. The colorings of flesh ranges from white to brown, orange and purple. True yams are from Africa, are very starchy, not sweet and grow as large as 100 pounds.
So how do you know which garden variety to use when a recipe calls for sweet potatoes? Generally, white sweet potatoes are best for baking while the orange flesh potatoes are better mashed or in soups.