The Secret Ingredient That Totally Transforms Sweet Potatoes

Here's the tale of a traditional Turkey Day side dish and its deliciously vintage twist. Who knew?!

mashed sweet potatoesElena Veselova/Shutterstock

Several years ago, a family friend handed me his recipe for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes—handwritten on a giant recipe card with the vaguest instructions I’ve ever seen. I skimmed it and did a double-take. See if you can catch what stopped me in my tracks:

Put about 1/2 stick butter in a large frying pan with plenty of light brown sugar. Add 8 to 10 slices of orange. Cook for a few minutes, then add 2 small cans of sweet potatoes, preferably whole. Keep turning the sweet potatoes in the sugar mixture, adding orange juice so they won’t stick. Cook slowly for at least 1 hour.

Sweet potatoes and orange?! Never would’ve thought to combine the two.

How I Made the Recipe My Own

But come Thanksgiving Day that year, I decided to fudge my way through the recipe. I jotted a few key notes to clarify as I went:

• Turns out he wasn’t kidding about needing a large skillet.
• “Plenty” of brown sugar ends up being enough that you start to get a gooey sauce but not so much that it burns! (I still haven’t committed to a specific quantity.)
• 10 slices of orange are tastier than just 8.
• I couldn’t find 2 small cans of sweet potatoes, so I went with one 28-ouncer. And I learned the hard way: Drain the syrup from the can before adding the sweet potatoes to your skillet.
• The ideal amount of orange juice ends up being 2 to 3 cups.
• Be prepared to perch by the stove, stirring often!

The Results

After much guessing, the result was…amazing! The dish tastes kind of like candied yams with a delightfully bright twist, and the texture is similar to mashed potatoes. True to my cooking style, I never wrote down any more detail than what you see here, and I’m sure I’ve never made it the same way twice.

Still, this heirloom side dish has become a must for every Thanksgiving. My sister and her kids love it so much, it’s now on their table every year, too. Find out the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.

More Orangey Sweet Potato Recipes to Love

If you don’t mind winging it, feel free to try following the original version with my pointers above. But if you’re after that delicious orange flavor with more predictable results, here are a few amazing Test Kitchen-approved recipes you can try:

Creamy Sweet Potatoes (love the marshmallows on top)

Sweet Potato Orange Cups (so retro!)

Contest-Winning Sweet Potato Bake (the people have spoken)

Citrus Sweet Potatoes (if you’re into sliced instead of mashed)

Favorite Mashed Sweet Potatoes (so easy)

Sweet Potato Orange Pineapple Crunch (for the ultimate citrus kiss)

Still haven’t gotten your fill of sweet potatoes? Check out our ultimate Thanksgiving menu with recipes everyone will enjoy.

Originally Published on Taste of Home

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Kristin Sutter
A big fan of homegrown cooking, Kristin has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She has mastered the art of learning from her inexpert riffs on other people's truly good recipes.