What to Know About the Rainbow of Sweet Potato Varieties

The flavors are just as amazing as the striking colors.

orange and purple sweet potatoes
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Many of us consider the reliable sweet potato to be a highlight of the fall and winter fresh produce season. They are versatile, affordable, and keep well for weeks. We're familiar with the tried-and-true varieties with orange flesh, but those aren't the only sweet potatoes we can find in our grocery stores and farmers' markets these days. If you've not checked out the sweet potatoes with striking deep purple, creamy yellow, or white flesh, you're in for an array of taste treats. For that matter, if you've always bought that same type of orange sweet potatoes, it's time to explore other varieties of orange as well. These different colors, sizes, and shapes of sweet potatoes don't all taste the same.

Atypical sweet potato colors are natural, not the result of food dyes or farming innovations. Some of the varieties are heirlooms that have been around for a decades and are well known in other countries, but never caught on commercially in the South the way that orange varieties did, even though they grow just as well.

As with most root vegetables, colorful sweet potatoes are ideal for baking and roasting, so a fun way to give these new varieties a taste test is through a simple side dish. Buy one or two of each variety you can find, keeping in mind that the color of the skin isn't always indicative of the color inside. Cut the peeled potatoes (although some small tender potatoes don't need to be peeled, only scrubbed) into bite-size chunks, moisten with oil, season with salt, spread onto a baking sheet, and roast at 375 degrees until tender. You can compare bites to figure out your new favorites.

While most orange potatoes can be used interchangeably, the other colors are not always the best choices for recipes that call for mashed or pureed sweet potatoes. The non-orange potatoes are firmer, drier, and starchier, which means they tend to crumble instead of turn silky soft when cooked. Some bakers have noted that white and purple sweet potatoes seem to soak up the liquid in a recipe, which makes them tricky to use in baked goods with a fixed amount of liquid in the batter, such as casseroles, cakes, pies, and muffins. However, these starchy sweet potatoes can be delicious in soups and stews where you can easily adjust the amount of liquid if the recipe turns out too thick.

Be sure to store fresh sweet potatoes in a cool, dark spot that has good air circulation, such as in a basket in the pantry or on the counter. But don't refrigerate them. The cold air does their flavors and textures no favors, and doesn't make them keep any longer.

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