Sweet potato casserole has been a Thanksgiving tradition for generations. And over the years this family favourite has evolved, leading to different ways to make it, and hundreds of recipes for each.
Because there are so many recipes, it can be a bit overwhelming. To help make sense of it all, I’ve pulled together twenty recipes from Pinterest. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, to help you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you best.
What is sweet potato casserole?
If you haven’t come across it before, sweet potato casserole is mashed sweet potatoes, usually mixed with butter and sugar, topped with a layer of sweet nut crumbs or, more traditionally, marshmallows. It’s baked in the oven, and typically served hot as a side dish with roast turkey at Thanksgiving in the US.
And if you’re now wondering why on earth anyone would combine sweet potatoes and marshmallows, you’re not alone. There was even dissent on this union amongst some of the authors of these recipes, and their readers as well. One reader commented “I love sweet potatoes. I love marshmallows. Anyone who combines them should be treated for mental illness.” And Caitlyn from Erdhardts Eat says “Also, do not add marshmallows. It is weird and we do not do that here.” But it’s apparent that many people love it, and who are we to question that? The best food is the food you enjoy.
It’s believed that the concept was dreamt up as a marketing ploy by the Angelus Marshmallow company in 1917, in order to sell more of their sweet treats. The idea’s not inconceivable, given a similar tactic led to Campbell’s giving birth to green bean casserole in the 1950’s. Regardless of it’s origins though, the idea of sweet potato casserole stuck, and became tradition in households across America.
Is it a side dish? Or a dessert?
Sweet potato casserole is just that – sweet. This leaves some people questioning its place as a side dish. Maybe it should be served for dessert?
It’s up to you really. For some people, sweet potato casserole, particularly with marshmallows on top, will be far too sweet to serve as a side dish. But based on the comments of some of these authors and their readers, some people love the contrast of the sweetness in an otherwise very savoury meal.
Cooking your sweet potatoes
The first step in making your casserole is cooking your sweet potatoes. And there are two main methods the authors propose – boil them, or bake them.
Seven authors provide directions for, or recommend, boiling your sweet potatoes, most of them after peeling and chopping them. And an eighth, Jamie from A Sassy Spoon, provides directions for steaming them.
Four more authors bake their sweet potatoes, usually whole with the skin on. This method will obviously take longer, but if you’ve ever made a roasted pumpkin or roasted cauliflower soup, you’ll know how much wonderful flavour roasting can add to vegetables. Sweet potatoes are no different, with the slow, dry heat of the oven imparting a great depth of flavour that boiling just can’t replicate. Definitely worth a try if you have the time!
All of the other authors leave the cooking method up to you, or provide advice on several methods, including baking and boiling, but microwaving also appears a few times too. If you’re looking to simplify your casserole with quick and easy shortcuts, cooking your sweet potatoes in the microwave will definitely help.
Canned sweet potatoes
Only one author, Jodi from Create Kids Club, uses canned sweet potato in her recipe. Many of the other authors get questions about using canned sweet potatoes in their recipes, but none appear to have tried it and so can’t comment on the effect of substituting canned for fresh. Based on their comments though, it sounds like the canned variety have more liquid in them, so if you are considering the switch, make sure you drain off any excess liquid. Otherwise you could try Jodi’s recipe for sweet potato casserole with canned sweet potatoes.
What about yams?
A number of readers ask about replacing sweet potatoes with yams. Most authors reply that this is probably okay, but in reality, if their readers are in North America, they probably don’t need to worry.
True yams are quite different to sweet potatoes, being starchier and drier in texture, and not as sweet. And they are quite difficult to find in the US, at least according to the Library of Congress and Wikipedia. The term yam became popular in the US when different varieties of sweet potato began to appear in the market. Today, the USDA requires all “yams” to be labelled as sweet potatoes as well.
If you do have access to true yams, it’s hard to say how your casserole will turn out, but it will almost certainly be different, both in texture and sweetness.
Making your sweet potato mixture
There are two main approaches to preparing your cooked sweet potatoes for the casserole. All of the authors mash them, but some do this by hand, and some do it with a hand-held mixer or food processor. Those that do it with a mixer are aiming for a smooth and fluffy texture, using the mixer to help whip some air into the filling. If you do it by hand you’ll have a coarser texture. Some authors highlight this, like Tiffany from Crème de la Crumb, who prefers more texture, so doesn’t whip hers as much. So choose your approach to mashing your potatoes and mixing your filling to suit your own preference for texture, because either way will work.
But a sweet potato casserole contains more than just sweet potatoes. There are several other ingredients commonly included in these recipes:
- Milk or cream
- One or more spices or other flavourings
Nineteen of the recipes include butter in the sweet potato mixture. The amount varies considerably, from two tablespoons for a little richness, to half-a-cup for a more decadent casserole. Tessa from Handle The Heat is the only author to exclude butter in her sweet potato casserole recipe, although she does use it in her topping.
If you need or want to avoid butter, most authors agree that butter is important to the taste, so would be best replaced with margarine or something similar rather than simply left out.
The majority of authors sweeten their casserole mix, with seventeen adding sugar to their sweet potatoes. Again, there’s variation in the amount, from as little as a quarter of a cup, with sweeter versions including as much as a cup. And brown sugar is definitely more popular, used in eleven of these recipes.
If you’re hoping to dial back the sweetness, I share a few options to do this a little further down.
Eggs are a very popular part of the sweet potato mix, because they enhance both richness and texture. Fifteen of these recipes include them.
If you’re not a fan of, or can’t have eggs, I’ve listed the other five recipes under a separate heading at the bottom. Better to use one of these than leave the eggs out of a recipe designed to include them.
Milk or Cream
In order to achieve a creamier consistency, twelve authors include milk or cream in their sweet potato mixture.
Milk is by far the more common, used in nine recipes. Bit if you’d prefer a creamier casserole, the three cream options are:
- Tara from Noshing with the Nolands uses half-and-half
- Olya from What’s in the Pan uses heavy cream
- Daniel from Serious Eats offers sour cream as an option
If you’re not familiar with some of these cream products, like half-and-half, you’re not alone. Different types of cream have different names in some countries, and some products aren’t available in every country. Check out my glossary for more detail on cream products.
If you’re going to pick just one flavour to add to your casserole, then it should be vanilla. Eighteen recipes include vanilla in the mixture, typically a teaspoon of extract, and a couple use a little more. And if that doesn’t cause more confusion about whether this is a side or a dessert, I don’t know what does!
After vanilla, the most common additions are akin to pumpkin pie spice. Seven recipes add some cinnamon, and six some nutmeg. Cloves make a couple of appearances too. And Jodi from Create Kids Club actually uses two teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice.
The other flavouring worth mentioning, while not common at all, is maple syrup. It only appears in two recipes, but it’s a popular flavour with roasted sweet potatoes, so it’s easy to imagine this would be a welcome addition. If you’re interested in giving it a try, check out the recipes from Joy at Build Your Bite and Tessa from Handle The Heat.
A couple of authors, Jamie from A Sassy Spoon, and Catalina from Sweet & Savory Meals, include some pecans in their filling. Both of these authors use pecans in their topping as well, a popular choice as we’ll discover shortly.
There are a couple of unique inclusions amongst these recipes too. Natasha from Natasha’s Kitchen adds craisins (dried cranberries) to her casserole, and Caitlyn from Erdhardts Eat adds crushed pineapple. Based on several comments across a number of recipes, pineapple is not that uncommon an addition. A number of readers enjoying the tartness, the texture or both.
And finally, one reader asked if bananas could be incorporated in the dish?!? This was a big surprise to me, but a quick Google search proved it’s not at all unheard of.
A little less sugar?
If you’re keen on sweet potato casserole, but maybe not quite so sweet, there are a few options amongst these recipes that may work better for you.
The most savoury recipe comes from Daniel at Serious Eats. His sweet potato mixture excludes sugar, and is laced with savoury flavours like browned butter, sour cream, grated ginger and fresh sage. He then tops it with marshmallows for a sweetly contrasted finish. Check out his more savoury sweet potato casserole recipe if you’re looking to dial back the sweetness this year.
If Daniel’s recipe is too far astray from tradition for you, there are a couple of others to check out. Tara from Noshing with the Nolands and Tessa from Handle the Heat both exclude sugar in their sweet potato mixture as well. Otherwise their recipes are more consistent with the rest, although Tara’s recipe also excludes vanilla, while Tessa’s adds a twist with the addition of maple syrup.
A traditional sweet potato casserole includes only marshmallows as the topping. But based on these recipes you have a number of choices to crown your casserole with:
- Chopped pecans
- A streusel topping
- Or any combination of the three
If you’re not familiar with the term streusel, it’s baking terminology for a crumbly topping of flour, butter and sugar. It’s commonly used on top of a number of different baked goods.
No matter which way you choose to go, the toppings are all sweet. So much so that Joy from Build Your Bite points out that adding a little salt to the topping helps offset some of the sweetness. Three other authors agree with her, also including a small amount of salt in their topping mixes.
Of these twenty recipes, only seven include the traditional marshmallows. All of these authors use mini marshmallows, and only one uses marshmallows alone. The other six also include pecans, streusel or both with their marshmallows. Most are mixed together, with the one exception being Tessa from Handle the Heat’s recipe. Her aptly named Crowd-Pleasing Sweet Potato Casserole separates the marshmallows and the pecan-streusel into strips so her guests can decide for themselves.
Marshmallows on their own are definitely the quickest and easiest approach to topping your sweet potato casserole. Sprinkle (lots of!) them over the top and you’re done.
Overwhelmingly the most popular topping is the combination of chopped pecans and streusel, with fifteen authors taking this approach. The pecan-streusel mix varies a bit from author to author, but the intent is the same – a crumbly, crunchy, rich, sweet topping. Three authors go all-in, adding marshmallows as well, although one separates them as I highlighted earlier.
There are a few different recommendations on how to prepare your pecans. Most authors roughly chop them, but a couple use halved or whole pecans, while Joy from Build Your Bite blends hers to fine crumbs. You can really choose the texture you prefer here.
One great tip from Catalina at Sweet & Savory Meals is to roast your pecans before chopping them. While adding an additional step, roasting or pan-browning nuts always wonderfully enhances their flavour.
Because of taste preferences, or allergies, a number of readers ask the authors about substitutions, especially for the pecans. Walnuts or almonds are commonly suggested where pecans specifically are the issue.
If you’re trying to avoid nuts altogether, Catalina from Sweet & Savory Meals recommends sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, oats or granola as great alternatives for the crunch the nuts provide. And a couple of readers offer up corn flakes or graham crackers as suggestions too.
Baking your sweet potato casserole
The goal here is to get your filling nice and hot and your topping lovely and brown.
Because the sweet potato mix is quite dense, a moderate oven temperature is ideal to prevent the topping from over-browning while the filling cooks. Fourteen authors opt for 350°F/175°C. This not only works well for your sweet potato casserole, but quite likely for your turkey, green bean casserole or stuffing if they’re sharing the oven as well. The other six authors only bump it a little to 375°F/190°C.
Even though the oven temperatures are consistent, baking times are not at all, varying from as little as fifteen minutes to as much as forty-five. There could be several reasons for this – different size baking dishes, differences in ovens and more. On average though, thirty to forty minutes is the most consistent recommendation.
Several authors point out that your casserole will bake more quickly if you put it all together while your sweet potatoes are still warm. Worth remembering if you’re pinched for time, but if you’re using eggs in your casserole just make sure the potatoes aren’t too hot or they will scramble them.
Ultimately your casserole will be done when the topping is nicely browned, and the sweet potato mixture is bubbling underneath. Because marshmallows tend to brown very quickly, the recipes that use them typically add them right at the end of the cooking time, when there’s only five or ten minutes left.
And if your topping’s not quite as brown as you’d like, a couple of authors broil/grill their casserole briefly at the end, just to ensure a really golden finish. Alternatively, you could do as Daniel at Serious Eats does, and roast your casserole in a very hot oven for a few minutes at the end for the same effect.
Resting your casserole
While most authors don’t find it necessary, four do recommend resting your sweet potato casserole for ten to thirty minutes once you take it out of the oven. All four of these recipes include eggs, and in fact a couple of the authors advise this rest period to allow your filling to set before serving.
Making it ahead of time
Several authors offer guidance on preparing your sweet potato casserole in advance, including the day before, or some even further in advance and frozen.
Most agree the best approach is to make your sweet potato filling the day before, put it in your casserole dish and cover it. To prevent it drying out or skinning, you can cover it with cling/saran/gladwrap pressed onto the surface of the filling.
Then you can either make your streusel topping in advance and keep it separate, or make it on the day. Either way, don’t apply your topping until your ready to put the casserole into the oven. And whichever way you go, make sure you either allow it to come to room temperature before baking, or allow for additional time in the oven.
The essence of sweet potato casserole
Based on these twenty recipes, the most popular approach to this sweet Thanksgiving side dish includes:
- Mashed sweet potato mixed with sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla. You could include some milk or cream, and lift the flavour a little with some cinnamon or nutmeg
- A topping of crumbled sugar, flour and butter mixed with chopped pecans.
Bake it in a 350°F/175°C oven until your topping is golden brown and your filling is hot and bubbling up, probably thirty to forty minutes.
So there you have it – the essence of sweet potato casserole. Whether you’re looking for a pecan-crusted modern version, or a traditional marshmallow-topped one, you’ll find a recipe that suits you amongst these. And if you’re thinking of shaking it up a little this year, you’ll find some great approaches to doing that too.
Whichever way you go, your casserole will go beautifully with a roast turkey, or roast turkey breast, so make sure you check out my reviews of traditional Thanksgiving dishes.