Candied yams are a staple on many holiday dinner tables across the country because of the dish's sweet, comforting flavor and New World origins. Made from the flesh of cooked sweet potatoes and a variety of sugary ingredients, candied yams add a unique flavor combination to holiday feasts and are often made from family recipes passed down from generation to generation.
Most Americans do not eat candied yams year round. Candied yams are mostly served as a holiday side dish, especially at Thanksgiving. Sweet potatoes are a food native to the Americas, making them an appropriate addition to Thanksgiving feasts. Historically sweet potatoes comprised a more significant part of the average American's diet and were eaten, plain or combined with other ingredients to make dishes like candied yams, as everyday fare.
Sweet potatoes as a crop do not tolerate cold temperatures, making them profitable to grow only in the southern states. For this reason, sweet potato dishes like candied yams have always been more popular in the southern United States. However, candied yams are not exclusive to southern cuisine and are eaten in all regions of the country, especially at Thanksgiving.
Candied yams can be made from fresh sweet potatoes or from canned sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes sold in cans are often marketed as yams and are usually cut into chunks and canned with a sweet syrup. Recipes that call for canned yams should factor in the additional sweetness of the canning syrup and adjust amounts of other ingredients accordingly.
When using fresh sweet potatoes to make candied yams the sweet potatoes are usually par-cooked before adding additional ingredients. The potatoes can be cut into chucks and boiled, steamed or baked to soften, with peels on or off. Most people prefer to remove the peels of sweet potatoes when preparing candied yams, but other like their flavor and texture and opt to leave them on.
Once the sweet potatoes are par-cooked, they are usually layered with a mixture of ingredients that combine to make a syrup, often including butter, brown sugar, maple syrup or molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, marshmallows, nuts and raisins. Candied yams can be made with all of these ingredients or with just a few, but most recipes call for at least butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon or vanilla.
Candied yams typically cook for 45 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees F, and if marshmallows are being used, they are not added until the very end to avoid burning.
While many Americans refer to sweet potatoes as yams, and the terms are interchangeable in the United States, yams and sweet potatoes are two very different things. Yams are a distant relative to sweet potatoes but they lack some of the nutritional value of sweet potatoes, their flesh is lighter in color, and they grow in Africa and other tropical areas. The "yams" in candied yams are sweet potatoes, even those sold in cans and marketed as "yams."