Candied Yams: The Sweetest Treat Among Thanksgiving Sides
This beloved dish is a must-have at many a holiday meal. Join us as we review a little American history, demystify yams vs. sweet potatoes, and explore the wide world of candied yam recipes — with and without marshmallows.
Photograph by Olga Ivanova
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Sticky and sweet, candied yams (a.k.a. sweet potatoes) are a favorite of kids and cheerful grown-ups alike. And while dulcet Jell-O-based “salads” have fallen out of fashion, candied yams have been sweetening the Thanksgiving meal for close to 150 years. Agricultural scientist George Washington Carver (who was the preeminent Black scientist of the first part of the 20th century) published several recipes for glacé sweet potatoes, while up north a Boston cooking school had published a cookbook a little earlier with two recipes for glazed sweet potatoes. Americans have never looked back.
But when did fluffy marshmallow clouds start floating on top? Janet McKenzie Hill, the founder of a cooking magazine, was hired in 1917 to develop a recipe to convince homemakers that marshmallows could be an “everyday ingredient.” Candied yams (a.k.a. sweet potatoes, more on that below) now delivered a toasty sugar rush along with a dose of vitamin A, to the joy of children everywhere who try to avoid their veggies.
Whether you’re pro-marshmallow or prefer a more classic dish, we’ve gathered a variety of candied yam recipes to grace every table, including a few to help the harried cook, some for special diets, and even a few dessert ideas for those who just can’t get enough. Let us give thanks, indeed.
Jump ahead to:
Candied yams, demystified
Yams vs. sweet potatoes? Canned vs. fresh? We’ve got answers.
Are yams the same as sweet potatoes?
At this point, it is nearly impossible to find a true yam in any standard U.S. grocery store; most Americans have never actually tried one. Most “yams” are mislabeled varieties of sweet potato, and the USDA now requires the word “yam” to have “sweet potato” included in official labeling.
Yams were (and are) a central part of West African cuisines, and were brought to the U.S. from Africa during the slave trade, where some were then cultivated by slaves in the South. Real yams have a coarse brown skin, can grow to be a few feet long, are very starchy, and are not sweet tasting at all. Sweet potatoes are indigenous to Central and South America and make up the overwhelming majority of commercially cultivated orange tubers found in U.S. markets, and are sold in many varieties.
In the 1930s, growers in Louisiana developed a new variety of sweet potato and decided to inaccurately use the word “yam” to differentiate it in the marketplace; since then confusion has reigned. But unless you’re at an African market, you are almost certainly buying a variety of sweet potato.
What kind of sweet potato (a.k.a. yam) is best for making candied yams?
Look for red or orange skin with a glorious creamy orange flesh, often labeled a Jewel or Red Garnet variety — these will be the most moist and sweet. Japanese, Sweet Hannah, or Purple sweet potato varieties have purple or tan skins, are less sweet, and have a starchier texture that’s closer to a standard baked potato.
How do you make candied yams from a can?
These are better in mashed preparations than served in chunks or circles; check out the excellent recipe, Bruce’s Yam Mallow Casserole with Pineapple and Cinnamon, below for instruction.
How do you store candied yams, and how long do they last?
Most leftover candied yams can be stored in a sealed container (or simply cover the baking dish with aluminum foil) in the refrigerator for about a week — if they last that long!
Simple or sophisticated, Southern or savory-sweet?
From classic candied yam recipes to elegant Hasselback-style, there’s a recipe for every palate
These tender tubers end up covered in a sweet and caramel-y sauce. Baking them helps caramelize the brown and turbinado sugars, for a cinnamon-scented side.
Sweetly spiced, sticky with honey, and topped with a satisfying crumble (reminiscent of a streusel topping) of gingersnaps, flour, light brown sugar, and butter, these Southern candied yams will be a table favorite.
This Thanksgiving, give the people what they want. Marshmallows at the dinner table always feels like you’re getting away with something, and this Thanksgiving side dish delivers the goods. It’s been a rough couple years; you deserve it.
Lemon and orange zest and juice mixed with freshly grated ginger make these candied yams pop with citrus brightness and ginger’s bite to balance out the brown sugar and starchy tubers. The streusel topping has plenty of pecans, for a nutty crunch to balance the softness below.
Yams (or sweet potatoes) get the Hasselback treatment in this elegant Thanksgiving side dish. The spiced, buttery sauce permeates each yam, while mini marshmallows get toasted in between each saucy spud.
This recipe offers excellent instruction to make candied yams from a can — Bruce’s Yams Cut Sweet Potatoes in Syrup, to be precise. The pineapple adds a touch of acidity to cut the sweetness, and the number of marshmallows on top can be varied to suit your desires.
These Southern candied yams call for garnet varietals (which have a dusky red skin and luminous orange flesh) and are coated with a vanilla-scented, spiced, and sweet buttery sauce that caramelizes beautifully in the oven.
Toasty marshmallow-topped candied yams get the sweet and salty treatment in this preparation that calls for kosher salt, light brown sugar, cloves, and a splash of apple juice.
Candied yam recipes that don’t require an oven
Finding enough oven space can feel like an impossible game of Tetris on Thanksgiving. Here are some superb candied yam recipes to prepare on the stovetop, in a slow cooker, or in an Instant Pot.
Each inch on an oven rack is valuable real estate on a holiday! Thankfully, this easy recipe for candied yams only requires one stovetop burner and occasional basting with its sweet and simple sauce.
The pressure cooker setting on the Instant Pot makes quick work of these delicious candied yams with marshmallows. To achieve the crisp browning on top requires a few minutes under the broiler before serving, but it’s easy to pop them in shortly before serving while the turkey is resting.
These Southern candied yams develop a lush and velvety texture thanks to their three hours in the slow cooker (which also frees up the stovetop and oven for other Thanksgiving dishes). Vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, and ground nutmeg make them sweetly spiced.
These sweet potato wedges are a nice departure from the coin- or cube-shaped preparations that are most common. Plus this simple recipe for candied “yams” from scratch can go from cutting board to stovetop to table in under a half-hour (while the turkey rests, if necessary), a boon on a hectic cooking day.
This is one of the simplest of the easy candied yam recipes. Only three ingredients, these yams (or sweet potatoes) are boiled, then mashed with butter and brown sugar for a quick way to make candied yams from scratch.
This candied yam recipe features a vegan caramel sauce that is bright with orange juice and sweet with coconut sugar. Plus cooking them in an Instant Pot in pressure cooker mode means they’ll be ready for the table in about 20 minutes.
Special diet-friendly candied yams
Whether you’re gluten-free, vegan, paleo, avoiding refined sugars, or simply trying to put together a healthier Thanksgiving dinner, these recipes use the tuber’s natural sweetness to excellent advantage
This visually arresting casserole combines two different kinds of texture and sweetness, for an intriguing twist on traditional candied yam recipes that adds a little fruit to your veg. The spiced citrus sauce combines lemon and orange juices with spices and a tiny bit of butter for a novel and healthier twist on the classic.
This healthier vegan side dish cleverly uses pureed dates on top for sweetness (feel free to double the topping if you like), and swaps in maple syrup instead of sugar.
Maple syrup and brown sugar provide a more complex sweetness to these gluten-free candied yams. Ground pecans replace the flour in the topping to form a naturally nutty crust when mixed with brown sugar and chopped pecans.
This healthy Thanksgiving side dish has no refined sugars and is vegan, but still fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg with sweet notes thanks to a little maple syrup and orange juice. This easy candied yam recipe can be doubled or tripled as needed.
This paleo-friendly candied yam recipe is lush and satisfying for any diet, especially with the from-scratch cinnamon candied pecans that use more natural sweeteners.
A sweet finish
Why not double up on everyone’s favorite ingredient and have candied yams for dessert, too?
These adorable little sweet potato mini cakes could be a decadent side dish or healthy-ish dessert — you decide! But either way they’re super cute and perfectly portioned out for serving.
It’s healthy to call a thing what it is: In the case of candied yams, perhaps the most honest descriptor would be “dessert”! Delight everyone after dinner with this meringue-topped candied yam pie and give thanks, because every once in a while you can have it all.
Want more fabulous Thanksgiving recipes?
Check out these related Yummly articles to complete your holiday table, including easy mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, roast turkey, and pies, pies, and more pies!