My sautéed sweet potatoes received a mixed reception at our dinner table last night.

Sweet potatoes in basket

Sweet potatoes are filled with fiber, antioxidants and potassium – and they’re fat- and cholesterol free. (How “sweet” is that?!)

Photo Credit: ©2007 Dan Hemmelgarn

Drying sweet potatoes

Lay sweet potatoes out in indirect sunlight to dry before curing them.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

“They taste great,” my son said, “but they make me feel a little sad.”

I knew exactly what he meant. Days earlier we had enjoyed a long, hot afternoon canoeing on the Gasconade River, frolicking in the riffles and skipping stones. As I reluctantly suspected, I had taken my last outdoor swim of the season, in the newly chilly rushing water. Days later, autumn announced her official arrival with rain ushering in the inevitable cool front.

While I was happy to throw open my windows to fresh evening breezes and walk briskly in crisp morning air, it was sad to know that the warm season was officially over. But now it’s time to bring on simmering soups and stews, stoke the fire and snuggle under the weight of an extra blanket – because our “bittersweet potatoes” marked the gustatory signal for the shorter, colder days of fall.

Sweet potatoes were one of the few cultivated vegetable crops that originated in the Americas and were enjoyed by American Indian tribes. So it’s no wonder why the food graces our traditional Thanksgiving tables. But don’t wait till November to bite into these tasty gems. Sweet potatoes are ready for harvest now. (If you don’t have any to harvest from your garden this year, you can find plenty at local farmers’ markets – and you can always grow your own sweet potatoes next year!)

Although you can cook newly dug sweet potatoes immediately, their flavor and storage is enhanced by curing them first. Curing promotes conversion of starch to sugar, and yields truly “sweet” potatoes. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Carefully dig and handle your tubers to avoid skinning and bruising the roots. (Even a small wound can easily become infected with decay organisms.) Because sweet potatoes are easily damaged during the washing process, allow roots to dry and cure before removing excess soil.
  2. Line storage crates or boxes with rags or other soft material to protect the roots, then store your sweet potatoes for about 10 days at 80-85 degrees F with high relative humidity of about 85-90 percent. (If the temperature’s closer to 65-75 degrees F, the curing period should take 2-3 weeks.) To maintain the required high humidity, stack the crates or boxes and cover with paper or heavy cloth.
  3. Once your sweet potatoes have been cured, store them in a dark location at about 55-60 degrees F. (Ideal storage conditions also provide 85-90 percent relative humidity and allow for good air circulation.) You’ll get good results if you wrap cured sweet potatoes in newspaper and store them in a cool closet. Storing them below 55 degrees F (like in the refrigerator) may cause “hardcore,” a disorder in which a whitish, hard area appears in the cooked sweet potato. And when stored above 60 degrees F, internal breakdown, shrinking and sprouting can occur.

Properly stored sweet potatoes can be held up to 10 months with little reduction in quality – great news for us sweet-spud lovers! And as the colder days of fall rush in and we turn to more heart-warming foods, the taste of our perfectly cooked sweet potatoes will be just that – absolutely sweet.