How To Make the Best Candied Yams

updated Oct 6, 2022

In this classic Southern side dish, par-cooked sweet potatoes are topped with a mixture of butter, sugar, and spice, then baked until tender and coated in a sweet sauce.

Serves6

Prep15 minutes

Cook25 minutes

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Southern candied yams in baking dish with spoon on side.
Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges | Food Styling: Tyna Hoang

Candied yams are a classic Southern dish (and quintessential Thanksgiving side!) I’ve enjoyed my entire life. But for years I avoided making them, partially because I thought the process was complicated but mostly because I knew they’d never be as good as my mom’s.

Her candied yams are rich in flavor, covered in sweet sauce, and flavored with vanilla (which really does make a difference).

Recently, I finally decided to ask my mom how to make her candied yams. I was shocked by how easily they came together, and now understand what makes hers better than any others. Today, I’m sharing her beloved recipe with you.

Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges | Food Styling: Tyna Hoang

First, What Are Candied Yams?

Candied yams are a Southern staple that are easy to love, but the first thing you should know is that they’re not actually made with yams. A yam is a dry, starchy root vegetable whose skin resembles the bark of a tree.

They can be difficult to find in grocery stores, which is probably why sweet potatoes are more commonly used. In fact, what your grocery store is labeling a “yam” is likely actually a sweet potato. (If I’ve totally confused you, we’ve got an in-depth discussion of the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.)

Regardless, candied yams are made by par-cooking sweet potatoes in boiling water, placing them in a baking dish, and topping with a mixture of butter, sugar, and spice. They’re then baked until tender and the sweet sauce mixture has thickened and is rich in color.

Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges | Food Styling: Tyna Hoang

Learning to Make My Mom’s Candied Yams

When I asked my mom how to make her candied yams, I expected her to hand me a recipe. Instead, she told me to add enough sugar to cover the top of the sweet potatoes, use vanilla extract if you have it, and sprinkle the spices until it feels right in your spirit. She’s repeated this process so many times she could make candied yams in her sleep, but the lack of specifics made my job more challenging.

I took her outline and came up with my own version, but while they were good, they weren’t quite my mom’s. I realized the only way to know exactly how she made hers was to join her in the kitchen and write it down as she cooked.

As it turned out, our recipes were similar and our ingredient list fairly close, but while I prefer to use a combination of granulated and brown sugars, my mom strictly uses dark brown sugar and adds vanilla. 

The biggest difference between our recipes is that while I placed all the ingredients into the baking dish and had the sauce come together while baking, my mom prepares her sauce before baking by stirring together brown sugar, vanilla, and leftover water from boiling the potatoes.

She then pours this over the sweet potatoes before placing them in the oven, tossing them as they bake to create the candied yams. This one extra step doesn’t take much time, but it’s a huge payoff in flavor, allowing the sugar to melt into the water and the sauce to come together better.

Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges | Food Styling: Tyna Hoang

How to Serve Candied Yams

While candied yams are popular on the Thanksgiving table, they don’t need to be reserved for holidays. Serve the sweet side with your favorite protein such as baked ham or turkey and additional sides such as green beans and collard greens. The sauce will thicken as the dish cools, so let it sit for at least five minutes before digging in.

Credit: Photo: Justin Bridges | Food Styling: Tyna Hoang
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Here's how to make the best southern candied yams.

How to Make the Best Candied Yams

In this classic Southern side dish, par-cooked sweet potatoes are topped with a mixture of butter, sugar, and spice, then baked until tender and coated in a sweet sauce.

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 25 minutes

Serves6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 3

    large yams or sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds total)

  • 1/2 cup

    packed dark brown sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    ground nutmeg

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1 stick) salted butter

Equipment

  • Knife and cutting board

  • Large saucepan or pot

  • Slotted spoon

  • 8x8-inch square baking dish

  • Measuring cup and spoons

Instructions

  1. Prep the yams. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF. Peel and cut 3 large yams into 1-inch pieces.

  2. Partially cook the yams. Place the yams in a large saucepan or pot and cover with water by about 1 inch. Bring to a low boil over medium-high heat and simmer just until they can be pierced with a fork and starting to soften (they will not be fully cooked), about 10 minutes. Be careful not to overcook.

  3. Transfer to a baking dish. Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the yams into an 8x8-inch square baking dish (reserve the cooking water). Spread the yams out in an even layer.

  4. Combine the water, brown sugar, and vanilla. Transfer 3/4 cup warm reserved cooking water into a measuring cup or medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar and stir to dissolve. Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and stir to combine.

  5. Top the yams with spices. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg over the yams.

  6. Pour the sugar mixture over yams. Pour the water-sugar mixture over the yams.

  7. Top with butter. Cut 1 stick salted butter into cubes and scatter over the yams.

  8. Bake 5 minutes. Bake for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and gently toss the yams to combine the sauce and evenly coat the yams.

  9. Continue baking until fork tender. Bake until the yams are fork-tender, about 10 minutes more. Remove the baking dish from the oven and spoon the candied mixture evenly over the top.

  10. Serve. Let the yams cool about 5 minutes so the sauce can thicken. Serve warm.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The yams can be cooked up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated, be sure to also reserve 3/4 cup of the cooking water.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container up to 3 days. The butter may solidify once stored in the refrigerator. It will melt upon reheating, and stir again before serving.