They say you always remember your first one.
"I was in a field in Texas. At an antiques show. It was just a baked sweet potato with butter and salt, but it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever had."
For Niche pastry chef Sarah Osborn, that initial sweet potato experience was a memorable one. We don't blame her—the vibrant tuberous root vegetable brings to mind more than one childhood Thanksgiving table laden with sticky-sweet casserole.
But underneath the marshmallows and candied pecans lies one of fall's most versatile seasonal vegetables, ideal for baking into pie, roasting with a chicken or simply enjoying on its own. Like most tubers, you can find them in supermarkets year-round, but the end of October marks the onset of prime sweet potato season.
We've got a few tips to help you navigate these universal roots, plus a recipe for a spiced quick bread that will have you hooked all fall (see the recipe).
Master the name game. Let's clear up the confusion: A sweet potato is not a yam. Though grocery store labels may lead you to believe otherwise, they're not related, even on a yearly holiday card basis. Yams are solely tropical tubers and are much starchier and drier than their casserole counterparts. Sweet potatoes take on a mash-like tenderness once cooked and are mainly grown in the South—explaining flavor combinations like bourbon-mashed sweets or the maple-pecan sweet potato hash found at Shelby Hall, Lisa Garza-Selcer's upcoming tribute to Delta comfort food in Dallas.
Meet the players. Peel a red garnet or jewel sweet potato, and you're greeted with the familiar warm orange flesh. But branch out and you'll find a range from striking purple Okinawan sweet potatoes to the light yellow Japanese variety. Also known as satsumaimo, these are starchier and typically less sweet than the usual supermarket suspects. Nick Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine in San Francisco like to roast them with a whole chicken. When served with sliced avocado, they call it the ultimate comfort food. But we tend to side with Osborn, who believes it's "hard to go wrong with a classic orange sweet potato," which is the one we chose for our fragrant spiced sweet potato quick bread.
Bake it 'til you make it. A quick bread is the little black dress of baked goods. It's forgiving, timeless and feels appropriate for any occasion. And if this sweet potato-packed version was a dress, it would have cap sleeves for fall. Cardamom supplements the standard pumpkin spice blend, and molasses adds a deeper flavor than, say, maple syrup. And while other quick breads (pumpkin, banana) use fruit or vegetable purée, we opted to grate the sweet potato straight into the batter instead. It saves you nearly an hour of roasting time—it is a "quick bread," after all—and we love how the coarse orange strands lace throughout the surface when sliced.
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Keep it simple. When in doubt, roast sweet potatoes whole. Make sure you leave the skin on, as it'll help save the sweet caramelized juices that will start to ooze out. At newly opened restaurant Cala in San Francisco, roasted whole sweet potatoes are paired with bone marrow and salsa negro—but for other chefs, like Osborn and Garza, a pat of butter or a drizzle of maple syrup is all it takes. To cut down on time, slice the potatoes before roasting, or steam or boil them until tender in gently rolling water.
Learn from the pros. Once you have the basic cooking methods down, treat your sweets like a canvas and take inspiration from top chefs' latest moves. Osborn once served savory miso ice cream with a Missouri white sweet potato cake and churns out a sweet potato beer caramel. Shane Lyons at New York's Distilled likes to serve a fall special of sweet potato-stuffed creamy burrata, or he pairs the sweets with earthy spices like a North African harissa. Balla and Burns turn to sweet potatoes to thicken dessert sauces: "We purée them into cultured cream instead of sugar and egg for an insane anglaise-ish sauce."
And though most of them agree that you should save the marshmallows for s'mores and let the sweets shine on their own, we won't tell if you sneak a few. Even a black dress needs a strand of pearls sometimes.