How to Cook Yams 4 Different Ways for Sweet or Savory Flavor

Check out our Test Kitchen's best tips on how to cook yams, and discover how versatile this nutritious root vegetable can be.

If you're in charge of the yams for Thanksgiving dinner, you're no doubt actually making sweet potatoes. Let me explain. Actual yams have a woody, tree-like exterior (unlike the reddish-hued skins of sweet potatoes) and are native to more tropical regions, like Africa, Central America, and Asia. Not only do real yams look different, but they're also starchier and not as sweet as the orange-tinted sweet potatoes you love. The confusion began long ago when produce shippers dubbed soft, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes "yams" to differentiate them from firmer-fleshed sweet potatoes, and the name has stuck. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires yams that aren't the real thing to also be labeled as a sweet potato. So unless you're in an international grocery store, you're likely grabbing sweet potatoes.

Yams (sweet potatoes)
Yams have a dark brown exterior and starchy white flesh. Sweet potatoes have a lighter reddish-brown exterior and usually orange flesh. Andy Lyons

How to Cook Yams

Regardless of what you call them, yams (or sweet potatoes) are delicious in both savory and sweet dishes. For side dishes, they're often boiled or baked (peeled or unpeeled). They can be added to soups, stews, and braises. Sometimes boiled yams are mashed to serve as a side dish, or for use as an ingredient in quick breads and pies. Read on for instructions on how to cook yams in a variety of ways, so you can enjoy them in your favorite recipes.

Maple-Bourbon Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Andy Lyons

How to Boil Yams

The most common stove-top way to cook yams is to boil them. You can follow our basic directions for how to boil sweet potatoes for making perfect mashed dishes.

  1. Wash and peel the yams, then cut them into bite-size cubes.
  2. Choose a saucepan or Dutch oven that will be large enough to hold them without crowding. Fill the pot with just enough salted water to cover the yams.
  3. Bring to a boil and cook, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until tender. If you can pierce the flesh with a fork or knife, they're ready.

After draining, you're ready to use your boiled yams in any recipe that calls for them mashed. Start by picking the right mashing tool for the job. A potato masher, or an electric mixer used at low speed, will produce fluffy, smooth mashed yams. Measure the amount you need for the recipe. Note that one medium yam (8 oz.) yields about 1 ⅓ cups of peeled, cooked mashed yams.

Test Kitchen Tip: In a pinch, you can use canned sweet potatoes for recipes that call for boiled and mashed yams or sweet potatoes. Simply drain and mash with a potato masher or electric mixer. Measure the amount needed for your recipe.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes
Blaine Moats

How to Bake Yams

Learning how to cook yams in the oven means you can make a simple and nutritious side dish for meat loaf, steaks, grilled chicken, fish, and more. Here's how to make baked yams whole:

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Scrub yams thoroughly with a vegetable brush, then pat dry. Prick the yams with a fork.
  3. Bake 40 to 60 minutes, or until tender.
  4. Place each baked yam inside a kitchen towel. Gently roll to soften the flesh.
  5. Cut an X in the top of each, and press the skin to push the flesh upward.
  6. You can serve them with butter, brown sugar, and/or cinnamon.

How to Cook Yams in the Microwave

If you can't wait an hour to eat, try making yams in minutes with this super-quick microwave method. Here's how to get your yams on the table (or recipe-ready) in minutes.

  • To microwave whole yams: Prick scrubbed yams all over with a fork. Microwave on high eight to 10 minutes, or until tender, turning them once.
  • To microwave sliced yams: Wash, peel, and cut off the woody portions and ends, then cut into quarters. Place the yams and a ½-cup of water in a microwave-safe casserole dish. Microwave, covered, at 100% power (high) 10 minutes, or until tender, stirring once.

Test Kitchen Tip: One pound of yams equals about two medium yams, or 2 ¾ cups of cubed yams.

How to Make Yam or Sweet Potato Fries

For a colorful and nutritious alternative to regular french fries, you can easily make yam fries in your oven. Here are tips for how to make fries that will rival your favorite diner's recipe. See our baked sweet potato fries recipe for the full instructions.

  1. Scrub the yams thoroughly with a brush, then pat dry. You can peel them, or leave the skins on.
  2. Use a sharp thin-blade knife to cut the yams into ¼- to ½-inch-thick strips. Our Test Kitchen Pros recommend cutting each fry to an even thickness as best you can. Because yams contain more sugar than regular potatoes, if cut too thin, they tend to burn easily and cook unevenly.
  3. Give those yams a drizzle of olive oil and toss with seasonings (fresh or dried sage, rosemary, and thyme work especially well with yams).
  4. When arranging the slices on a baking sheet, place them only in a single layer, so they'll brown evenly. Use two baking sheets if things are getting too crowded.
  5. Bake them until tender, turning once so they're evenly cooked.

Sweet Potato and Yam Desserts

Yams and sweet potatoes also work well in sweet dishes. They're great in a classic sweet potato pie, but have you tried sweet potato brownies or cupcakes? If you want something less conventional, try cooking the bright-colored ube. It's a type of purple sweet potato popular in the Philippines that can be turned into gorgeous (and delicious) purple yam desserts.

Tips for Buying and Storing Yams

Yams are available year-round, but their peak season is winter, which means they're the perfect addition to all those slow cooker dishes that provide such comforting meals in cold months. When you're purchasing, look for small to medium yams that are smooth, firm, and free of soft spots. Store them whole and unpeeled in a cool, dry place for up to one week. Do not refrigerate yams, because they'll dry out.

In the mood for baked yams yet? For more inspiration, try the BHG favorite Florence Mama's candied yams. Bake a batch of yam and jam muffins for breakfast, or go for one of these delicious sweet potato casseroles to go with your holiday feast.

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