When You’re Not in the Mood for Marshmallows
Everyone roasts meat and poultry. And next week roast turkey will have the starring role on millions of festive Thanksgiving tables. But roast vegetables? Not so much.
Too bad, because they’re delectable. Roasting deepens and concentrates the flavor of vegetables, often revealing hidden layers of taste. Roasting offers a flavor dimension you just won’t experience with the traditional T-day “candied yams.”
Sweet potatoes are ideal for roasting. They’re naturally sweet — that’s why we call them sweet potatoes, no? Roasting only emphasizes that sweetness, with no additional sugar (or marshmallows) needed.
Best of all? Roast Sweet Potatoes take minimal preparation time. And when cooking a big multi-dish meal like Thanksgiving dinner, who doesn’t want to reduce prep time?
Recipe: Roast Sweet Potatoes
Roasting works well with vegetables because the hot oven evaporates some of their moisture, making them tender and caramelizing their natural sugar. The process is easy: Just toss cut-up veggies with olive oil, salt, and pepper before roasting. You can add herbs or garlic if you want to kick up their flavor.
You can roast sweet potatoes (or any vegetable, for that matter) at any oven temperature from 300 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. I prefer 400 – 425 for sweet potatoes. They take longer to cook at lower temperatures, and at higher temperatures they have a tendency to char somewhat (which I regard as a good thing, although not always something I want). Roasting time may vary somewhat depending on the size and shape of your sweet potato pieces (more on that in the Notes).
Because sweet potatoes vary in size, it’s difficult to say exactly how many servings you’ll get from each one. I estimate that an average-size sweet potato weights about ½ pound before peeling, which yields about 2 side-dish sized servings (although in the Kitchen Riffs household, that would be one serving because we like Roast Sweet Potatoes so much). If you’re serving a lot of extra side dishes — typical at Thanksgiving — you’ll probably get 3 servings from each sweet potato, perhaps even a bit more. Leftovers store well in a covered container in the refrigerator for a few days.
- sweet potatoes washed and peeled (as many as you want)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons pure olive oil per sweet potato (the cheap stuff; the aroma of extra virgin olive oil dissipates during the roasting, so you’re wasting money if you use that)
- optional herb of choice (I recommend fresh chopped rosemary or dried thyme; to taste – see Notes for quantities & other herb/spice ideas)
- optional cayenne pepper (its spiciness is a nice contrast with the sweetness of the potatoes; to taste – see Notes for quantity discussion)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees (or any temperature between 300 – 500; but roasting time will vary; see Notes).
- Wash and peel sweet potatoes.
- Cut sweet potatoes into the desired size and shape. I suggest ½-inch rounds; or split the sweet potato lengthwise and cut ½-inch half-moons; or cut wedges about ½-inch in diameter. See Notes.
- Put sweet potato pieces in large bowl with olive oil (enough to lightly coat the pieces; perhaps a tablespoon per potato) and salt, pepper, and optional herb to taste. Toss until the potato pieces are coated.
- Spread pieces on large rimmed baking sheet or in a casserole baking dish. You want the pieces to be in one layer, and not touching (to promote even cooking).
- If using optional cayenne pepper, sprinkle over sweet potato pieces to taste.
- Roast the sweet potatoes until they are tender throughout, but not mushy. At 400 degrees for ½-inch pieces, this usually takes between 40 to 50 minutes, but I start checking at 30 minutes. Stir pieces once or twice during roasting to promote even cooking.
- If you want a bit more char on your sweet potatoes (at this temperature you won’t get much), run the baking pan under the broiler for a few minutes until you achieve the result you desire.
- Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve!
- Roast Sweet Potatoes are great for a meal like Thanksgiving, where you have the oven temperature set to accommodate your turkey. Sweet potatoes roast well at any temperature at which you’ll roast a turkey, though they will take a little more or less cooking time depending on the oven temperature. Start testing the potatoes at the 30-minute mark, and keep testing every 10 – 15 minutes until you determine they’re done.
- After oven temperature, the factor that will affect roasting time the most is the size and shape of the sweet potato pieces. Smaller pieces will roast faster, large ones slower. Pieces with a lot of surface area also roast faster. That’s why ½-inch cubes roast faster than whole sweet potatoes.
- Spreading out the sweet potato pieces so they don’t touch promotes even and rapid roasting. If you pile them into a casserole, they will roast and will still be good; but they definitely won’t char (which you might not want anyway) and their surface texture won’t be quite as crisp.
- You can cut sweet potato pieces into any size, although I recommend ½-inch as the smallest, and an inch as the largest. Try to keep the pieces all the same size, more or less.
- It’s simplest to cut rounds. Or halve the sweet potato lengthwise and cut half-moons. Cubes or wedges take a bit more work (although I like strips). You can even cut the sweet potato into “French fry shape” and have roasted sweet potato French fries!
- Quantities in this recipe are highly variable, so use your own good judgment. The amount of olive oil is the biggest variable. If you want a really low-fat dish, you can get by without using any olive oil, although the sweet potato pieces will be somewhat dry, and also less flavorful. Depending on my mood, I typically use between 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil per sweet potato; although as I add additional sweet potatoes, the amount of oil per sweet potato decreases. You want to toss the sweet potatoes with olive oil until they’re nicely coated — the same technique you use when tossing a salad.
- My favorite herbs with this dish are dried thyme (works better than fresh in this recipe, IMO) and fresh rosemary (dried rosemary is soulless and not worth buying). Dried Herbes de Provence is another interesting choice. I use about ½ teaspoon of dried herb per sweet potato or 1 teaspoon of fresh. But you can vary the amounts so you have just a hint of herb, or quite a bit.
- Spices such as cumin, coriander, and paprika also work well with this recipe. Or try any herb or spice that you are fond of. If it sounds good to you, it probably will be.
- “Hot” spices like cayenne pepper are wonderful with roast sweet potatoes (or even with candied sweet potatoes). Under-season at first if you’re worried about too much spiciness; you can always add additional cayenne pepper after the sweet potatoes are baked (although the flavor of the roasted cayenne pepper is deliciously smoky). When I roast sweet potatoes I often omit the herb, and season only with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.
- Roasting is a good technique for cooking just about any vegetable, not just sweet potatoes. It may be the best way to cook root vegetables or cruciferous vegetables, which many people avoid because of past encounters with inedible overboiled atrocities. Lots of people think they don’t like Brussels sprouts, for example — but once they try them roasted (and tossed in balsamic vinegar just before serving), they change their minds.
Sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes (they’re actually related to morning glories). Nor are they yams (yams are in an entirely different botanical family). In fact, real yams are rarely found in markets in the United States. What we often call “yams” are just sweet potatoes with softer flesh and deeper orange color. This variety of sweet potato (which tends to be sweeter than those with paler flesh) is the type I prefer.
Even though sweet potatoes aren’t related to regular potatoes, they can be used like regular potatoes in almost any recipe. For example, they’re great in soup; or in sweet potato and tomato curry; and they make a terrific chili! And of course they’re fabulous when baked whole.
There’s nothing wrong with candied sweet potatoes if that’s the flavor you crave (though served this way, they’re really more a savory dessert than a vegetable side dish). And I understand the power and allure of traditional recipes, especially at a holiday like Thanksgiving.
So maybe I can’t persuade you to ditch the candied sweet potatoes on Turkey Day. But might I suggest buying a few extra sweet potatoes when purchasing your Thanksgiving supply?
After the holiday frenzy has passed, you can try them roasted with another meal. They’re a great seasonal veggie, after all. You may want to serve them with roast pork, for example (it’s a dynamite combination). You can even roast them in the pan along with the pork so they’ll absorb that wonderful porky flavor (don’t bother tossing them in olive oil in this case; the rendering pork fat will be flavor enough).
Or serve them with almost anything — their flavor is extremely versatile.
I bet you’ll discover that roasting is a sweet way to prepare your vegetables.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Sweet Potato Soup with Chilies and Corn
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Sweet Potatoes in Tomato Curry Sauce
Baking Powder Biscuits