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The Ultimate Sweet Potato Guide: History, Facts, and Recipes

There’s a lot to be said about the sweet potato. The nutritious and delicious spud has a ton of health benefits, is a versatile cooking ingredient, and has a more storied past than almost any vegetable you’ll find. Before we get into everything to know about the sweet potato, let’s clear up some confusion about the sweet spud.

Difference Between Sweet Potato, Potatoes, and Yams

Variety of raw uncooked organic potatoes: red, white, sweet and fingers potatoes over wooden background.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Little known fact: Sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes. Instead, they’re considered root vegetables and members of the morning glory family. Potatoes are part of the nightshade family and are classified as tubers. Regardless, we’re not going to split hairs. They’ve been classified as potatoes for centuries, and who are we to reinvent the wheel? What really pushes our buttons is when people call sweet potatoes yams.

The terms yam and sweet potato have been used interchangeably forever. Although they are kind of the same shape and vaguely the same color, the two aren’t even closely related and are in two completely different plant families. Sweet potatoes originate from South and Central America, while yams come from Africa and Asia. Sweet potatoes are moist and sweet, while yams are dry and starchy. So those candied yams your Aunty has been bringing to Thanksgiving every year are, in fact, sweet potatoes — and you can tell her we said so.

Sweet Potato Health Benefits

Many people believe that sweet potatoes are healthier than most other potato varieties, but that’s not necessarily true. All types of potatoes are extremely rich in nutrients and fiber. Over the years, they’ve gotten a bad reputation because they don’t fit into low-carb diets and are often consumed in unhealthy ways, as potato chips or in French fry form. It’s important to consider the context of what health benefits you’re examining.

When looking at overall nutrient density, the red potato wins out. The best potato for weight loss is actually the white russet because of its high protein and fiber levels that make you feel full longer. Also, if you’re looking for a keto-friendly potato, you might as well stay away from all forms as they are all high in carbs.

The health benefit categories that the sweet potato takes first prize in overall mineral content. Per calorie consumed, sweet potatoes meet your daily recommended dosage of magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium. They’re also an excellent source of vision-supporting beta-carotene, having levels many times over the daily recommended value.

Looking for foods and drinks to help you sleep? Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of foods high in tryptophan,  an essential amino acid that aids with sleep.

Lastly, sweet potatoes also have been found to have many properties that prevent disease. They’re known to reduce inflammation in the body, thereby reducing the risk of obesity and some cancers. Their antioxidants are also great for gut health. Sweet potatoes also have the lowest glycemic index rating of any potato, making them the potato of choice for diabetics. Whether you’re chopping them and baking in the oven or simply cooking your sweet potato in the microwave, they are sure to provide you with the nutrients and health benefits that you need.

Sweet Potato Recipes

There are dozens of ways to enjoy the delicious and nutritious sweet potato. They can be the star of the show, a side dish, or be incorporated into one-pot meals. Here are some of our favorite recipes for sweet potatoes.

Air Fryer Chipotle Sweet Potato Chips

Sliced sweet potatoes with seasoning.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(Courtesy of Steven Johnson)
Sweet potato chips are a great thing to cook up in your air fryer. We recommend a large oven air fryer that comes with frying racks for this sweet potato air fryer recipe. A basket air fryer can also be used; you’ll just need to fry more batches. The nice thing is they fry up quickly in 6-8 minutes.


  • 2 cups of thinly sliced sweet potatoes
  • 1 can of avocado oil or coconut oil (because of high smoke points)
  • 1.5 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1.5 tablespoons of chipotle powder


  1. Preheat the air fryer to 375 degrees F.
  2. Use a mandolin to slice your potato to your desired thickness. The thicker they are, the longer they’ll need to be fried.
  3. Combine all seasonings in a bowl.
  4. Give the air fryer rack or basket a light spray with the oil to prevent sticking.
  5. Lay flat as many chips as possible on the rack or basket, spray lightly with oil, and season. Flip the chips and repeat.
  6. Place in the air fryer for 6 to 8 minutes monitoring to make sure they don’t burn.
  7. Remove from air fryer and let them cool in a bowl, and repeat the process until done.

Asian Baked Sweet Potato

Asian baked sweet potatoes.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(Courtesy of Adria Saracino)

A baked sweet potato makes for an excellent meal in and of itself, especially when it’s loaded with other goodies. This Asian twist recipe from Adria Saracino of The Emerald Palate is super unique and delicious.


  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 lb ground turkey thighs
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • .5-inch piece of ginger, minced
  • 1 tsp curry paste (or more if you like it spicy)
  • 3 tbsp. soy sauce
  • .5 can of (shaken) coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • Garnish: cilantro, cashews, lime wedges


  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork and place them on the sheet. Roast for 45-60 minutes until you can insert the fork into them fairly easily. Set aside. Pro tip: I usually do this part as soon as I get home while I’m focusing on other things.
  2. Meanwhile, preheat the coconut oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the turkey, season with salt and pepper, and cook until browned, 5 minutes.
  3. Make a well in the skillet, pushing the turkey to the side. Add the chopped onions and cook until softened and translucent, 3-5 minutes, seasoning halfway through.
  4. Add the garlic and ginger. Cook until fragrant, one minute.
  5. Add the curry paste to the meat mixture and stir to combine. Add the soy sauce and shaken coconut milk, and stir. Stir the brown sugar in a pool of coconut milk to dissolve, then mix it into the whole meat mixture. Bring to a rapid boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the peas and stir to incorporate. Cook until warmed through, 3-4 minutes more. Take off the heat and set aside.
  7. Cut each sweet potato length side, right down the middle, keeping it connected as if you were going to stuff it like a submarine sandwich. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the meat mixture into each sweet potato until heaping. Squeeze a lime wedge over each and garnish with cashews and cilantro leaves. Enjoy!

Instant Pot Easy Chicken & Sweet Potato Dinner

Instant Pot sweet potato and chicken stew in bowls.
(Courtesy of Carrie Forest)

Sweet potatoes and Instant Pots are a match made in heaven. This recipe from Carrie Forest of the Clean Eating Kitchen is super quick, easy, and delicious.


  • 1 tbsp avocado oil or olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken cutlets, cut into 1-inch pieces (can also use thighs)
  • .5 tsp dried thyme
  • .25 tsp garlic powder
  • .25 tsp ground cinnamon
  • .5 tsp sea salt
  • .25 tsp ground black pepper
  • .5 cup water
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
  • 1 14.5–ounce can of chopped tomatoes, with the juice
  • .25 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional, for topping)
  • 1 medium lemon or lime, juiced


  1. Drizzle your cooking oil into the Instant Pot bowl and press the Sauté button. Let the oil heat up for about two minutes.
  2. Place the onion and chicken in the pot and use a wooden spoon or spatula to move it around. Add the thyme, garlic powder, cinnamon, salt, and pepper.
  3. Cancel the sauté function and add the water, chopped sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, and stir to combine.
  4. Lock on the lid and set the cooking time to 8 minutes on high pressure.
  5. When the cooking time is up, let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, then quick-release the remaining pressure. Remove the lid and stir in the cilantro and lemon or lime juice.
  6. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for up to 4 days.

Read More: Best Dinner Recipes

Purple Sweet Potato Pie

Natural Grocer's purple sweet potato pie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(By Natural Grocers)

Sweet potatoes are so versatile they can also be dessert ingredients. This delicious, from-scratch purple sweet potato pie recipe from our friends at Natural Grocers is not only tasty, it’s also a beautiful holiday centerpiece.


For Pie Crust

  • 1 tbsp chilled butter to grease the pie dish
  • 1.25 cups almond flour
  • .25 cup potato starch
  • .5 cup tapioca flour
  • .5 tsp coarse salt
  • 4 tbsp chilled butter cut into tablespoons
  • 4 tbsp chilled Nutiva shortening – preferred or palm oil shortening measured out in tablespoons
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp coconut sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract

For Pie Filling

  • 2 purple sweet potatoes, one medium and one small
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 5.7-ounce can coconut milk, blended to emulsify
  • 1 tbsp coconut sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • .5 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • .2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • .25 teaspoon ground ginger


For Pie Crust

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 9-inch pie dish with butter.
  2. Add the dry ingredients to a food processor and pulse to combine.
  3. Add butter and shortening in tablespoon-sized pieces, pulsing between each addition to incorporate.
  4. Add the egg, coconut sugar, and vanilla. Process for several minutes until the dough forms a ball. (If you did not refrigerate your shortening, the dough will not form a ball. This is okay. Just make sure you process it until it is thoroughly mixed. Once it is thoroughly mixed, “pour” or spoon into the greased pie dish.)
  5. Place the dough in the middle of the greased pie dish.
  6. Grease your fingers with some butter and flatten the dough until the bottom and the sides of the pie dish are evenly covered. Crimp the edges if you like. Poke the dough multiple times on the sides and the bottom with a fork.
  7. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.

For Pie Filling

  1. Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into chunks. Place into a medium-sized saucepan and cover with water.
  2. Cover and boil on high to medium-high heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the sweet potato is fork-tender. Remove from the heat and drain most of the water, leaving just a small amount of water in the pan.
  3. Add the tablespoon of butter and mash sweet potatoes with a hand masher or purée in a food processor.
  4. In a medium mixing bowl whisk together the eggs, coconut milk, coconut sugar, vanilla extract, maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Sprinkle the spices over the top of the mixture prior to mixing and make sure to whisk out any lumps of spices.
  5. If you hand-mashed the sweet potatoes add them to the egg mixture, stir a couple of times with a spoon and then whisk until smooth.
  6. If you used a food processor to purée the potatoes, add the egg-coconut milk mixture to the bowl of the food processor and process until smooth and well combined.
  7. If the pie crust bubbled up during baking, press it down.
  8. Pour the sweet potato pie filling into the crust and bake for 50 minutes, or until pie filling is set. It should be just slightly jiggly.
  9. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Let cool for one hour prior to serving or refrigerating.

Read More: Best Pie Recipes

Sweet Potato History

Let’s touch on how sweet potatoes have become a favorite American staple.Like everything else, Christopher Columbus took credit for finding the sweet potato on his several voyages to the Americas. But indigenous people had been cultivating them for centuries. Some of the earliest cultivation records of sweet potatoes date back to Peru in 750 BC. Some scientists believe they could go back even further to 2500-1850BC.

Although Columbus did bring the sweet potato back to Europe, which led to its global cultivation, he wasn’t the first to transport them across the ocean. According to radiocarbon dating, scientists found prehistoric remnants of sweet potato in Polynesia from about A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1100. How the veggie made the voyage is uncertain. Still, they believe early Polynesians would make the journey using advanced catamaran-style sailboats that could stay at sea for months at a time.

Since then, over 6,000 varieties of sweet potatoes have been born, with around 100 grown and sold in the United States. This pantry staple is now sought out for its tastiness and because it’s viewed as a healthier alternative to the unsweetened potato varieties.

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Steven Johnson
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Steven Johnson is a chef-turned-content strategist. He now helps companies attract and retain more customers through content…
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