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."

69 Comments

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 !!
 
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.
 
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 :)
 
Bkilmer November 18, 2020
Delightful video! Your little gal is great. I also found myself wondering about the cat lurking behind Mr. Sharma's on the stair landing. :)
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.
 
witloof November 19, 2020
Me too, mesmerized by the cat.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Thank you, Bkilmer—great tips. And I loved the peek at Nik's cookbooks and cat, too.
 
Christine H. November 18, 2020
so, I make a sweet potato souffle type casserole for Thanksgiving. I have always roasted the sweet potatoes, but I am going to five this a try. Yum!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Hope you love it, Christine. (You might not even feel like you need the souffle!)
 
Stella November 18, 2020
For years I have used a brass grinder that a friend from Albania tells me is like the one he used to grind his family's coffee. I bought it years ago at an import store. The grinder is on top and the bottom catches the ground pepper.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Need one of these!
 
Jenny November 22, 2020
I have one of these too. It is my main pepper mill. Got it from a friend, whose Father bought it when he was stationed in Turkey in the early 1950's. She did not want it, but I love it.
 
Bert G. November 18, 2020
First, without a doubt, the greatest cooking video of all time in every way. And the new kitchen is superb.

I am a foil steamer of sweet potatoes and always feel that I am not cooking them up to their potential. Now I know why.

I cook acorn squash cut side down and then flip and add maple syrup and butter to the cavity. Sort of a reverse of Nik's sweet potato technique, so I should have known better.

Thank you so much for opening my eyes to what I have been lacking in technique.

 
Liz S. November 19, 2020
And I am now wondering ... does this work the same with "white" potatoes, more specifically Russet potatoes? I have both Russet and sweet and will be experimenting. Thank you Kristen, et. al. !!!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Wow, Bert, thank you! And I'd usually roasted squashes cut side down too, but Nik's idea of getting butter involved early on is brilliant. Liz, I'm not sure about regular potatoes but I'm very eager to know (doesn't seem like it could really go wrong if you keep an eye on them). Let us know how it goes!
 
Liz S. November 21, 2020
I used a pyrex casserole 9 x 13 I think... 1 sweet potato, 1 russet potato per the method in the recipe. I didn't have fish sauce but used crumbled bacon for a salty addition. Both sweet and russet were great! Flavor and texture a lot more to my taste than baking in their skin which I do (did!) often. AND, I added halfed brussels sprouts (olive oil, salt and chile pepper) to the other end of the dish. The sprouts finished a bit before the potatoes so next time will delay them 10 minutes. The dressing/bacon/peanuts were good over everything. Seriously good - Thanks, Kristen and Nik!!
 
Liz S. November 21, 2020
Oh, I mashed a little of each ... I like mashed (both russet and sweet) with gravy for my Thanksgiving and I like a rough mash vs creamy mash. Anyway, both mashed fine with a little of plain creme fraiche so I will redo the russet/sweet/brussels sprout combo for a 1 pan veg sides - yea! I usually end up with every pan I own to wash and this will simplify my "dinner for 1" a lot.
 
Liz S. November 23, 2020
I gave the same treatment: steam covered, then roast uncovered to a dish of 1/2 sprouts, 1/2 carrots and YUM! I don't know that it is the same molecular thing happening as with sweet potatoes, but so far russets, brussels sprouts and carrots have improved taste and texture [to me].

Kristen, I was listening to the podcast this morning (pie with EJM) and heard your question about Thanksgiving and small groups. I am 1 for the day (have been for many years) ... I have done various versions of turkey dinner, but I just saw a NYT Cooking with Melissa Clark: turkey dinner in 1 sheet pan, 1 pot. Between that and doing the steam/roast vegetables (I'm planning on russet, sweet potatoes, sprouts and I'll probably throw a bit of dressing on the pan at the end to crisp). So a mash of Melissa's thought and this method for veg sides. Otherwise, this year I bought a bone in turkey breast, have makings for cranberry sauce, EJM's black bottom pecan pie for dessert and I think I am set :).
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 23, 2020
Sounds like a delicious meal all around, Liz. Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for reporting back!
 
[email protected] November 18, 2020
I counted out how many turns of my salt and pepper mill it takes to get 1 teaspoon.
Now I know 24 turns = 1 tsp 12 = 1/2 tsp 6 = 1/4 tsp Etc

Every once in awhile I’ll do the 24 turns on wax paper and measure to see if it’s still accurate....never fails

 
Author Comment
Kristen M. November 20, 2020
Love it—thank you!