Genius Recipes

Is This the Most Genius Way to Cook Sweet Potatoes?

Highly likely, according to science and Nik Sharma.

November 18, 2020

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


For as friendly as sweet potatoes seem, I’ve been faced with too many gnarled, leathery husks when I’ve tried to roast them. Or softer but surprisingly flavorless flesh the times I’ve hustled them through the microwave or steamer. (Just me?)

It turns out I was doing all of the wrong things to my emphatically not-potatoes (1). And now I know exactly why, thanks to molecular biologist turned food writer Nik Sharma and his groundbreaking new cookbook The Flavor Equation. What I should have done? A little of column A, a little of column B.

As Nik explains in this week's episode of The Genius Recipe Tapes podcast, sweet potatoes benefit from steaming to break down their stringy fibers and render them spoonable. "Steam helps destroy that structure, so you’ve got then this creamy texture that comes about." But there’s no need to break out a pot of simmering water: Nik likes to split raw, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes open, smear them with butter, then cover them tightly to let them first steam in their own juices (and bonus butter juices).

Not gnarled, not leathery, not husks. Photo by Ty Mecham. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne.

Then, after 20 minutes of softening and drinking up slow-browning butter, he whips off the cover, flips the potatoes onto their cut faces and lets them roast and caramelize against the hot sheet pan for another 20 minutes or so.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Regarding the actual recipe, I have gotten very good results doing the same thing (1/2 time covered then flip and open roast) with smaller sweet potatoes (so less tough skins), and no butter. The delectable creme fraiche topping is rich enough and those ingredients really make it tasty! Regarding pepper, I store my big grinder on a little dipping dish, so it's very easy to just grind into the dish and eyeball the desired quantity. Thanks for the fun facts, chuckles, and good cooking you bring into our lives.”
— Bkilmer
Comment

Why add this step and not just let them finish becoming buttery pudding under wraps? As Nik discovered in writing The Flavor Equation, “Research shows that roasting produces at least 17 more aromatic molecules than are achieved through boiling or microwaving, and most of them in higher concentrations.” Sugars concentrate as water spritzes away; skin tightens; the Maillard reaction takes hold.

I finally understand why my daughter’s first sweet potatoes, steamed in thick rounds, tasted so unrepentantly flat (sorry, kid)—and, with my education from Nik, I won’t forget it. (2) The resulting slabs are the creamiest sweet potatoes I’ve made at home, with the deepest and most developed flavor. (3)

Nik finishes his with what looks like an elaborate parade of toppings—sweet-tart maple crème fraîche, crunchy peanuts and scallions, fragrant lime zest, prickling chile flakes—that takes all of five minutes to assemble. Whether they’re brightening your Thanksgiving table or dinner plate tonight, sweet potatoes may have never been friendlier.

(1) Potatoes are tubers; sweet potatoes are naturally more fibrous "tuberous root" vegetables (in the same family as cassava and true yams)—and they want to be cooked differently!

(2) For more of Nik breaking down the science that can make us better cooks (who don’t cry over their onions), check out his Food52 column The Kitchen Scientist.

(3) As my husband said, unironically, “I don’t like sweet potatoes. These are awesome.”

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Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

77 Comments

J April 9, 2021
Great technique for making sweet potatoes. I make a batch on a weekend this way and reheat them cut side down in a frying pan. Great to have on hand for pulling together something quick. (have not even tried the sauce!)
 
Ellie January 5, 2021
Have made this three times now. So delicious and full of flavour and nutrients.
 
Denise T. December 5, 2020
I was looking for a sweet potato recipe; I wanted something different other than the sweet potatoes with brown sugar and pecans, etc. The recipe was selected for the Thanksgiving 2020 menu; they were so good. 
 
Nishka C. December 4, 2020
Absolutely delicious!
Had to make some adjustments because one of the people I was feeding is intolerant to dairy. So used a really good quality olive oil instead of butter for the potatoes. I know it’s not the chemical reaction we’re looking for, so can’t wait to try it the real thing!!
Also subbed out the creme fraiche topping with a spicy coriander chutney - so in essence, this recipe was the base idea that I riffed on.
Can’t wait to make it “exactly as written”! Really tickled by the chemistry angle!!
 
Patricia D. November 24, 2020
Eager to make this but wondering if I can make it at home then reheat when I take it to hosts house? (She’s in my “bubble”) will reheating change the majic?
 
Judy B. November 25, 2020
I have reheated them. Works fine. A tip: start them in a cold oven. They are even better!
 
Jenny November 22, 2020
And be sure to try LaFrieda purple sweet potatoes. They are absolutely delicious. I love them so much I actually figured out how to sprout and grow some this Summer, The leaves are edible too! I used them in salads.
 
Belayne November 23, 2020
I never heard of them.
Will look for them and give them a try. Thank you for the tip!!
 
Belayne November 22, 2020
I made sweet potatoes last night using this method to cook them. I altered the toppings to make them of a more Thanksgiving style using brown sugar, an apple pie spice blend and fresh finely diced pineapple. (Oh, and mini marshmallows, of course!)
I must say, it was amazing!! The texture of the potato was so smooth and creamy. None of those fibrous bits. I will never roast my sweet potatoes any differently.
Looking forward to repeating this recipe for company when the COVID coast is clear. Thank you!
 
Melinda L. November 20, 2020
An old fashioned "tool" to get any baked potato fluffy is a quilted pocket. I lost mine, so I stick my potatoes in my quilted oven glove, and microwave them for the time suggested on my microwave door! They come out perfect - steamed in their own skin!
 
Sandra N. November 19, 2020
Did I miss something, I never saw what temperature for the oven?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
It's 400F—in the full recipe here! https://food52.com/recipes/84388-baked-sweet-potatoes-with-maple-crme-frache-recipe
 
Kaylen B. November 20, 2020
You have to click the "View Recipe" button. It tells you the temp in the directions.
 
Sandra N. November 22, 2020
Thank You Kristen !!
 
Judy B. November 25, 2020
Based on another successful baked sweet potato recipe, start them in a cold oven, then turn it on to 400. There is some complicated science behind this. They turn out even sweeter and creamier.
 
Chris T. November 19, 2020
Hi Kristen...to measure fresh pepper.....use the plastic bottles of pepper corns that come with a snap cap. Leave the cap on and grind away. When you think you have enough, carefully snap off the cap and measure into your teaspoon...easy peezy
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thank you!
 
Rosalind P. November 19, 2020
Just added in a long reply note but wanted to make it a separate message: If you have an oven-proof glass pot cover, or a Pyrex bowl, or any convex pot cover that would fit over your sweet potatoes, you can use that for the first step here. No foil needed. Like Kristen, I am stingy with my use of foil: save money and the planet. :-)
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thank you!
 
Ckratchman November 19, 2020
What is roasting temperature? Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
400F—here's the full recipe! https://food52.com/recipes/84388-baked-sweet-potatoes-with-maple-crme-frache-recipe
 
mary November 19, 2020
Roasted sweet potato with salt and butter as recipe called for. I did not use the dressing or any garnishes. Fabulous as was. I will use this baking method from here on out. Crunchy jacket, creamy potato. Not wet and soggy as my usual foil baked potatoes. I will try the dressings and garnishes another time. Thank you for this recipe. And I love your videos at home!
 
Rosalind P. November 19, 2020
Hi! Writing re your note about using foil for baking potates. I am old enough to remember when foil-baked potatoes were a presentation at "fancy" restaurants in the 50's, along with a cup of sour cream. Aluminum foil for consumer/kitchen use was brand new and really "modern" so using it was considered sophisticated. (keep in mind that "fancy" for a restaurant in the 50's was, well, something else.) When I started cooking for my own household (60's) I discovered that foil-wrapping resulted in a steamed potato. Edible and maybe even tasty, but definitely not baked -- and no delicious, crisp potato skins. And even then I thought it was kind of a waste of foil -- even before we knew how much energy and water were used to produce it. Bottom line: foil still essential for so much in the kitchen, but not for baked potatoes. (I reuse foil until it crumbles.) I have an oven-proof glass cover that works as the covering for the first stage of this recipe. It fits over all my sweet potatoes and keeps the steam in. A glass bowl would work too.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thank you both, and so glad they were a hit, Mary!
 
Jenny November 22, 2020
I remember the "fancy" foil bit too.
 
Judy B. November 25, 2020
So true about the old foil wrapped potato! It steams. Apparently the aluminum foil company sold a lot of foil and convinced the public that it was absolutely necessary.
Omg! Just grease those babies and stick ‘em in the oven!
 
Ken K. November 19, 2020
I normally just eyeball ground black pepper, but if you wanted to be exact you could grind it onto a piece of foil / parchment / wax paper on a food scale.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thanks!
 
MarcHarry November 19, 2020
Great ideas! Try sprinkling Tajin on a buttered sweet potato - really.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Brilliant.
 
Rosalind P. November 19, 2020
The butter would be delicious of course, but this works well with no fat at all in the roasting process.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Great to know, Rosalind.
 
bcollins November 19, 2020
Thanks for your informative video presentations! I am wondering what kind of stool your daughter was standing on to help-it looks genius!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thanks! This is the brand—she can climb up into it by herself and it's been a complete game-changer in getting her involved in the kitchen: https://guidecraftkitchenhelper.com/
 
So S. November 18, 2020
I exclusively like leathery, chewy sweet potatoes 😭
I strongly dislike soft sweet potatoes, they just don't taste caramelized and are weirdly gloopy to me, and I only buy japanese/korean sweet potatoes.

In fact I buy little bags of korean chewy dehydrated sweet potato chunks so I don't need to worry about accidentally making soft sweet potato 😥but even those aren't quite as delicious as oven-roasted chewy, leathery sweet potato
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thanks for standing up for the chewy ones!
 
arcanadana November 18, 2020
What sheet pan comes with a tight fitting cover, please? Or how does he cover them tightly exactly?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Nik actually calls more generally for a roasting pan, but my sheet pan was what fit the potatoes best (and wasn't deep in the back of a high cabinet)—I was thinking of pans like this: https://food52.com/shop/products/4503-food52-x-staub-multi-use-braiser-with-glass-lid-3-5qt But also other commenters have made some smart suggestions like putting an inverted sheet pan or heat-safe bowl over the top. You'd need to be careful handling them, but the same is true of the foil.
 
Carol November 18, 2020
So delightful! And I’m really looking forward to trying this technique. PS: you are a great Mom!! Thanks for your sweet informative videos too!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thanks so much, Carol :)