Classic Candied Yams

Lightly spiced and oh-so-sweet, these candied yams will become a mainstay in your Thanksgiving recipe lineup.

Classic Candied Yams
Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall
Active Time:
20 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 25 mins
Yield:
Serves 12 (serving size: about 1 cup)

Somewhere between a side dish and a dessert lands the classic Thanksgiving dish of Candied Yams. With the perfect blend of warming spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, sugar, and a touch of cream, this dish is easy to prepare and is always a crowd-pleaser. Though many of us are used to candied yams as a special holiday treat, don't forget that you can make this sweet side any time of the year—no excuses needed!

Can You Make Candied Yams Ahead of Time?

Not only are candied yams easy to cook, but they can also be prepared in advanced of your main meal prep. You can assemble the dish up to three days in advance, saving valuable time (and a lot of stress) on the big day. Simply prepare the recipe as directed, but store it covered in the refrigerator instead of baking it. When you're ready for a piping hot side dish to go alongside your turkey and all the trimmings, simply pop the casserole into the oven, and bake until the yams are tender.

Though this dish is quick and easy to prepare, here are a few tips and tricks we've learned throughout the years to take candied yams from super to stellar:

Sweet Potatoes Vs. Yams

A Southern staple at many family tables, candied yams aren't, well, actually made with yams! Most often, when you purchase a "yam" at the grocery store, you are really getting a sweet potato.

Yams are a dry, starchy root vegetable with rough skin that looks a bit like the bark of a tree. They can be as small as a potato or grow up to 45 feet long. Yams are most often found in Latin America, West Africa, and Asia. Though they are a versatile root vegetable, they are more starchy than sweet and are difficult to find in the United States.

Sweet potatoes are a root vegetable from the New World with softer, red skin and creamy flesh. So, why the confusion? Perhaps through lack of knowledge or wanting to increase sales, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were misnamed as "yams" to help differentiate them from standard baking potatoes (like a Russet). Though inaccurate, the name stuck, so here we are making candied yams with sweet potatoes.

There are many varieties of sweet potatoes available at most grocery stores, ranging from white to orange to purple. Though the orange-fleshed sweet potato is what we most often associate with candied yams, any variety will be delicious in this dish.

How to Pick a Sweet Potato

Though they are available year-round, the sweet potatoes' peak season is the winter months, which is why they are a traditional favorite at the Thanksgiving and Christmas table. When picking your sweet potatoes, look for small to medium-sized taters that have smooth, firm skins that are free of spots or soft spots. You can store whole sweet potatoes in a cool, dry place for up to two weeks. Don't refrigerate them, as they'll dry out and be less tender after cooking.

How to Make Candied Yams

For being so impressive and special, candied yams really are a breeze to make. Follow these simple steps:

Step 1. Prep the oven and the potatoes

Go ahead and get the oven warmed up. It won't take long to assemble the sweet potatoes and get this dish ready to bake. Set it to 350°F, then grab the cooking spray. Give the inside of a 13- x 9-inch baking dish a quick spritz. Then, layer the sweet potato rounds in the baking dish. You can be as organized as you want and lay out an intricate pattern. Or you can scatter the discs however they fit.

sweet potatoes in a baking dish
Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Step 2. Make the sauce

In a small saucepan, melt the 1/2 cup butter. Once it's melted, add both white granulated sugar and light brown sugar. When just combined, add the cream. Cook the sauce 5 to 7 minutes, or just until it comes to a simmer. Do not let it boil. Just as it reaches a simmer, remove the saucepan from the stove. Add vanilla extract, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg.

sauce in a sauce pan with a wooden spoon
Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Step 3. Pour sauce over potatoes

Pour the butter-sugar mixture over the sweet potatoes. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. The foil over the pan will help the potatoes steam and turn tender and keep the sugar mixture from scorching.

pouring sauce over candied yams in a baking dish
Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Step 4. Bake, stir, and serve

Place the baking dish in the preheated oven, and bake 40 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil, and stir the potato mixture, helping to coat the pieces in the sauce. Return the baking dish to the oven (without the aluminum foil), and bake another 25 to 30 minutes.

Classic Candied Yams
Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Christina Daley; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Do You Par-Boil Sweet Potatoes?

Many traditional recipes will have you par-boil the sweet potatoes and prepare the sauce ahead of time, then combine everything together for the final bake. Though it may be the way grandma did it, we find that process creates many more dishes and uses valuable time.

Instead, we bake the whole kit-and-kaboodle in one dish, saving time and clean-up. You still end up with perfectly tender sweet potatoes, covered in a sweet syrup. Make sure to stir the potatoes about halfway through, so they cook evenly tender, and are covered in the sauce.

Do You Have to Peel the Sweet Potatoes

Depending on how much time you have and how much elbow grease you want to put into the dish, you don't have to peel your sweet potatoes. In fact, we recommend leaving the skins on. Give them a good scrub to get rid of any dirt, then chop them up, skin and all.

The peel of the sweet potato has a ton of nutrients, including antioxidants. In fact, sweet potatoes are a very nutritious root vegetable, packed with protein, calcium, vitamin A, and beta-carotene. Of course, if you like the more traditional look, or need to hand out jobs to all of your helpers in the kitchen, peeling your sweet potatoes is perfectly ok.

Whether you peel or keep the skin on, make sure you chop the sweet potatoes into equal-sized pieces, so that they cook at the same rate. If you have small and large chunks in the same dish, some pieces will be overcooked and mushy while other pieces will be unappetizingly crunchy.

To Marshmallow or Not to Marshmallow

There is much debate whether candied yams should be topped with marshmallows. Though the dish is sweet enough on its own, if you like a little bit extra, once the sweet potatoes are tender top the casserole with mini marshmallows. Place the dish under the broiler and cook until they are golden brown. It only takes a few minutes to go from golden to burnt, so watch the dish closely while you cook.

If marshmallows aren't your thing, you can add other ingredients like chopped pecans or walnuts, a squeeze of orange juice, or a sprinkle of zest, or a pinch of ground ginger.

Candied Yams Tip

Make sure you let the sweet potatoes sit for at least 10 minutes before serving. The dish is piping hot when it comes out of the oven, risking burning the roof of your mouth. And, letting the sauce sit for a few minutes will create that thick, dark syrup we all have come to expect and love.

Ingredients

  • 4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1⁄2-inch-thick rounds

  • 1/2 cup salted butter

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

  • 1/4 cup heavy cream

  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Layer sweet potato slices in a lightly greased 13- x 9-inch baking dish.

  2. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium. Add sugars, stirring until well combined. Stir in cream; cook, stirring often, just until mixture comes to a simmer, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla extract, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg.

  3. Pour sugar mixture evenly over sweet potatoes, and cover with lightly greased aluminum foil.

  4. Bake, covered, in preheated oven, about 40 minutes. Uncover and gently stir potato mixture. Bake, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, 25 to 30 more minutes. Transfer potatoes to a serving bowl with a slotted spoon; pour syrup over potatoes. Serve immediately.

Chef's Notes

Make It Ahead

Assemble up to 3 days in advance. Make the recipe through Step 3, store it covered in the refrigerator, and then bake it on Thanksgiving Day.

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