At Whole Foods in Seattle, hills of sweet potatoes with gemstone names rise above a produce aisle. But if it's a yam you're seeking for the ubiquitous holiday classic, Candied...

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At Whole Foods in Seattle, hills of sweet potatoes with gemstone names rise above a produce aisle. But if it’s a yam you’re seeking for the ubiquitous holiday classic, Candied Yams, you won’t find it here.

Mark Janicke, produce buyer for the Roosevelt store, says that in many supermarkets what is labeled as a ‘yam’ is in fact a variety of sweet potato named Garnet.

“We don’t see true yams often in this part of the country,” he said. Occasionally they make an appearance in Latin American or African markets, where yams are an important item in the culinary culture.

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They are much larger than the sweet potato, thicker-skinned and not nearly as sugary. Instead of the creamy-soft interior of a sweet potato, their cooked texture is more like that of a regular potato.

So how did this confusion begin? The story goes, as Janicke tells us, the lineage lines were crossed many years ago when one farmer growing a specific variety of sweet potato wanted to set it apart from the other growers. As a marketing tool, he called it a yam.

But sweets and yams are as different from each other as apples and oranges. Sweet potatoes, the edible part of the plant’s roots, are like gingerroot, a member of the morning glory family. True yams are tropical rhizomes related to the lily and amaryllis. (And neither is related to the potato, which is a tuber.)

The sweet potato most familiar to many of us is the light-brownskinned Hanna, which bakes to a deep gold interior. But other sweets, with their bold, autumnal colors, offer a wonderful range of choices. For instance, both Garnet and Jewel varieties have brilliant, saturated orange-red interiors, while the Oriental or Japanese variety, sporting a pinkish-red skin, bakes to a creamy-yellow flesh.

“While all sweet potatoes are sweet,” Janicke says, “what distinguishes one from the other is their moisture content. For instance, the Garnet is very moist, while the Oriental is much drier. The Jewel and Hanna are somewhere in between.”

In “One Potato, Two Potato” (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), authors Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens write about the glories of the sweet potato. Because sweet potatoes’ starch content is much lower, they’re easier to mash than white potatoes, which can become a gluey mess when overworked.

They suggest boiling sweets whole with their skins on, or if too large, cut into a few large chunks. The trick is to expose as little of the flesh as possible to water, because once saturated, their texture and flavor change completely. If steaming sweet potatoes, peel and cut into chunks, and make sure the level of the water is below the steamer basket.

Baking the sweets in their jackets not only concentrates their sugar, making them sweeter still, but deepens their color. First pierce in several places and set on a sheet of foil, as the sugary moisture will drip and burn. Bake in a hot 425-degree oven for about an hour or until very tender when pierced in the center.

Sweet potatoes are sweetest during the winter months. When purchasing, look for ones that feel heavy for their size with tight, firm skins. Once home, store in a cool, dark spot, rather than the refrigerator, where they may become moldy quickly.