SEASON: Although sweet potatoes store well and are available most of the year, fall is when the fresh crop comes in.
CHOOSING: Select sweet potatoes that are firm and free of injuries.
STORING: The ideal temperature for storing sweet potatoes is in the 50s—warmer than the refrigerator and cooler than room temperature. An unheated garage or basement or a cool, dark cabinet or pantry is ideal. If stored properly, they’ll last three to six months. Otherwise, only buy as many as you can eat in a week or two.
GROWING: Sweet potatoes love hot weather and despise the cold, so wait to plant them until after the soil has warmed in spring, about three weeks after the last frost. They need 100 to 120 days to grow, depending on the variety, so get them started as early as possible.
Opt for varieties from disease-free sources. This may require you to order plants, known as slips, by mail. Create a raised, compost-enriched bed that is about a foot tall, 2 to 3 feet wide, and as long as you like in a sunny spot. Space plants about a foot apart, staggering them in the bed. Keep the soil moist until the new plants begin growing. Then water anytime the plants may be under stress from too little rain. Be sure to note the date you planted and how many days your plants need to mature.
Once the recommended number of days has passed, dig up a potato. If it’s about the size you want, go ahead and harvest the rest. Leaving them in the ground longer will result in larger sweet potatoes, but they can grow so large that they are unusable. If temperatures below 40 degrees are forecast before your sweet potatoes are scheduled to be harvested, go ahead and dig them up; cold weather can ruin the roots.
Because sweet potatoes aren’t very sweet or moist when first harvested, you’ll need to cure them for about eight weeks. This period of warmth and humidity helps heal any cuts and triggers the development of the sugar-creating enzymes that give these veggies their distinct flavor. Store them at 70 degrees to 85 degrees—the ideal location in your home may be near the water heater or on top of the refrigerator or clothes dryer—for 5 to 10 days. Then store them in the 50° range for six to eight weeks, which helps the sugars develop further.
FUN FACTS: Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory family, not the potato. People in the northern United States seem to prefer sweet potatoes with a more mealy consistency, while those in the South like their sweet potatoes with a more moist, sweet texture.
LOOKS: There are two main varieties of sweet potato that are available commercially. The pale sweet potato has a thin, light yellow skin and a pale yellow flesh. It's not as sweet as its darker counterpart, which has a thick, dark orange skin and a bright orange flesh.
EATING: This versatile food may be used in a variety of ways and sweet potato recipes abound, including boiling, baking, and sauteing. Some health food stores and restaurants are now making chips out of them as well.
PREP TIPS: Sweet potatoes may be substituted for regular potatoes in almost any recipe. To peel a boiled sweet potato, just drain off the hot water and immediately submerge them in cold water.
BENEFITS: Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamins A and C. They are more nutritious if cooked in their skins. –Cindy Hatcher