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Why Nik Sharma’s Sweet Potatoes Are Genius


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.

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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