Yams are a starchy root vegetable that are a staple food in many cuisines around the world. With their brown, rough exterior and creamy white or purple interior, preparing yams can seem intimidating for many home cooks. One of the first steps when cooking yams is determining whether or not you need to peel them.
In most cases, yes, you do need to peel yams before cooking and eating them. The peel or skin of a yam tends to be very rough and inedible. Peeling helps remove the tough exterior to reveal the soft, sweet flesh inside that can be incorporated into various recipes.
Do all types of yams need to be peeled?
Most types of yams have rough, bark-like skin that should be peeled away before eating. The most common types that typically require peeling are:
- Orange yams – These have light brown or orange skin that peels away to reveal orange flesh. They are sweeter than other yams.
- Yellow yams – These have yellow flesh and skin that can range from pale yellow to deep orange. Their texture is more firm than orange yams.
- White yams – These have a pale white or ivory skin and flesh. They tend to be the least sweet type of yam.
- Purple yams – These have a rough purple skin covering purple flesh that is high in antioxidants.
There are some varieties, like Dioscorea alata or water yam, that have a thinner, more tender skin. For these, peeling is optional. However, for most common types of yams, peeling off the skin is recommended.
Why should you peel yams before cooking and eating?
There are a few reasons why it’s generally advised to peel yams:
- Taste and texture – The skins are very fibrous and chewing on pieces of skin can be unpleasant. Peeling allows you to access the soft, smooth flesh inside.
- Appearance – The peel often appears very rough and unappetizing. Removing it gives yams a cleaner, more visually appealing look.
- Food safety – The skin has been exposed to dirt and potential contaminants. Peeling helps remove bacteria or debris that could be on the exterior.
- Cooking time – The tough skin takes longer to become tender during cooking. Peeling can reduce overall cooking time.
When can you leave the skin on yams?
There are some instances where peeling is not absolutely necessary:
- If the yams are very young and tender – Small, new season yams may have thinner, more palatable skin.
- If you boil or steam them whole – Cooking the yams unpeeled can allow the skin to soften enough to eat.
- If you want the extra fiber – The skins provide dietary fiber, so leaving them on provides some additional nutritional benefits.
- If the recipe calls for it – Some dishes specifically use scrubbed, unpeeled yams for a rustic presentation.
However, in most cases, peeling is still recommended even for boiling or steaming to get rid of dirt and bacteria on the surface. The skins rarely become truly tender enough for enjoyable eating.
What’s the best way to peel yams?
Peeling yams by hand with a standard vegetable peeler tends to be tedious and messy due to their irregular shape. Here are some tips for the easiest peeling process:
- Use a sharp paring knife or chef’s knife. The straight edge of a knife can dig into the tough skin better than a swivel vegetable peeler.
- Trim off each end to create flat, even surfaces. This gives you a steadier base to stand the yam up to peel it.
- Work top to bottom, carving off strips of the skin with the knife at a shallow angle. Aim to remove it in large pieces rather than thin strips.
- Use a toothbrush or produce brush to scrub off any remaining skin or eyes on the surface.
Another option is to use a stiff brush to scrub the unpeeled yams under running water. This cleans the skin but does not actually remove it. You can then boil or steam the yams whole before peeling once they are cooked.
Can you eat yam skin?
While yam skins are technically edible, they are rarely consumed. The outer peel is very fibrous with an unpleasant, bitter taste. The small bits of skin left on peeled yams can usually be eaten, but chomping down on large pieces of whole skins is undesirable.
If not thoroughly peeled or scrubbed, eating pieces of yam skin can also pose a choking hazard due to their dense, rough texture.
In the vast majority of cooking applications, the yam skins provide no real benefit and are best removed. However, the skins are sometimes used for unique recipes like yam skin chips. They can also potentially be fed to livestock as an agricultural byproduct.
Can you eat the skin of specific types of yams?
In general, it’s not recommended to eat the skins of the most widely available varieties in stores, including:
- Orange yams – The light brown peel has an unpleasant, bitter taste and fibrous texture.
- Yellow yams – The thick yellow peel is similarly too tough and unpalatable to eat when raw.
- White yams – White yam skin lacks flavor and has a tooth-jarring crunch.
- Purple yams – The rough purple exterior is very unappetizing and overwhelmingly fibrous.
Some exceptions are:
- Japanese yams – These have thinner, smooth brown skin that can be eaten if thoroughly scrubbed when young and fresh.
- Water yams – The light brown skin is relatively soft and can potentially be eaten after cooking.
However, for most people, the texture and taste of even these thinner skins is not particularly desirable. Peeling them is still recommended.
Nutrition of yam skins vs. flesh
One downside to peeling yams is that some nutrients are lost when you remove the skin. Here is a comparison of the nutrition in yam skins versus the inner flesh:
|Nutrient||Yam Skin||Yam Flesh|
|Vitamin A||None||High (in orange yams)|
As shown, yam skins contain more fiber while the flesh is higher in antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin A. The skins also contain compounds called saponins and alkaloids that are toxic in high concentrations.
Overall, the drawbacks of the unpleasant taste and texture outweigh the marginal nutritional benefits of eating yam skins for most people.
Can you eat yam skins if you cook them long enough?
It is possible to soften yam skins and make them a bit more palatable by cooking them for long periods, such as by:
- Boiling for 30+ minutes
- Baking for over 1 hour
- Slow roasting in a low oven for several hours
This amount of cooking can help break down the tough fiber in the skin and make it reasonably tender. However, the flavor is still rather bland and bitter, even after extensive cooking. Most people still find the texture to be unpleasant compared to the flesh.
Should you eat the skin for added nutrition?
If you want to maximize the nutrition in yams, keeping the skins on is one option. However, other methods like:
- Consuming yams with vitamin C-rich foods to increase iron and antioxidant absorption
- Leaving yams unpeeled but scrubbing the skin well before cooking
- Using the whole vegetable, including peeled skins and ends, for making broth
Can provide similar benefits without having to choke down whole pieces of unpleasant skin.
Can you cook yams with the skin on?
It is possible to cook yams without peeling them first. Whole, unpeeled yams can be:
This can help steam and soften the skin, allowing it to be peeled more easily after cooking. However, the skin will likely still be unpalatable, so peeled yams are best for most recipes.
Tips for cooking unpeeled yams
Here are some pointers if you do choose to cook yams before peeling:
- Scrub the skins vigorously first – Use a brush and water to clean off any dirt.
- Pierce the skin – Forking it a few times allows steam to escape and speeds cooking.
- Cook low and slow – A low oven or broth simmer results in better skin softening.
- Check for doneness – Use a fork or knife tip to test if the inside is tender.
- Cool slightly before peeling – Let the yam rest 5-10 minutes before removing the skin.
Keep in mind that the cooked flesh may end up absorbing some of the bitter flavors from the skin, so peeled yams are ideal for getting the best flavor.
How to store yams with the skin on
Fresh yams still covered with their natural skin can be stored in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Here are some storage tips:
- Leave them whole and unpeeled – The skin helps protect the flesh and prolong freshness.
- Choose firm, unbruised yams – Avoid any with cuts, soft spots or decay.
- Keep them in a ventilated container – A basket, crate or mesh bag allows air circulation.
- Store between 45°F-60°F – A cellar, pantry or cool cupboard mimics cellar conditions.
- Check periodically for mold – Discard any that are shriveled or moldy.
Storing cut, peeled yams in the fridge or freezer is best for longer term storage. But whole, unpeeled yams can be kept at room temperature for up to 1-2 weeks before use.
Can you freeze yams with the skin on?
Freezing helps prolong the shelf life of fresh yams, but it is best to peel them before freezing for a few reasons:
- The unpeeled skins are more prone to freezer burn.
- The peel prevents the yam flesh from freezing solidly.
- Thawed yams with skins are harder to peel after freezing.
To freeze unpeeled yams:
- Wash and dry the yams thoroughly.
- Pierce the skins several times with a knife tip.
- Place in an airtight freezer bag or container.
- Freeze for up to 6-9 months.
The pierced skin allows steam to escape during freezing. But for easier usage, peeling prior to freezing is best.
How to cook frozen yams with skins
To cook yams that were frozen whole and unpeeled, you can either:
- Cook from frozen – No thawing needed. Roast at 400°F for 1 hour or until tender.
- Thaw first – Thaw in the fridge for 12-24 hours before roasting or boiling.
Make sure to pierce the skin several times with a knife or fork before cooking to allow steam to escape. The yams can then be easily peeled after they are cooked through.
Peeling tips and tricks
Here are some additional pointers for easily and efficiently peeling yams:
Use a yam peeler tool
Specialized yam peelers are available that make quick work of removing the skin. They have a flattened, double-edged blade that slices beneath the skin.
Try a spoon
A metal spoon can be used to scrape away bits of skin left behind after peeling with a knife. Apply downward pressure and scrape the skin off.
Soak in water first
Soaking yams in cold water for 30 minutes before peeling can help soften and loosen the skin for easier removal.
Opt for younger yams
The fresher and younger the yam, the thinner and more tender the skin. New season yams tend to be easier to peel.
Peel before cutting
It’s harder to peel properly once the yam is cut into pieces. Peel first when possible, then cut as desired.
Cook unpeeled, then peel
As mentioned, boiling or roasting whole yams makes the skin lift off easier afterwards.
Common questions about peeling yams
Can you use a potato peeler?
Standard vegetable or potato peelers can be used, but often have difficulty gripping and removing the yam’s very rough, hardy skin.
Is a paring knife better than a chef’s knife?
A chef’s knife provides more control and leverage for removing thick yam skin. Paring knives work for small yams.
Do you peel before or after cutting up yams?
It’s generally better to peel the yam first when possible, as whole yams are easier to grip and peel than cut sections.
Can you use a pressure washer to peel them?
High pressure water sprayers can be used to blast off the skin, but may injure the tender flesh beneath in the process.
Is peeling required for all yam recipes?
In most cases, yes – the unpleasant texture and appearance of the skin makes peeling necessary. But some recipes do intentionally use unpeeled yams.
Though it takes a bit more prep work, peeling yams is an essential step for enjoying their full flavor and texture when cooking. The rough outer skin is too unpalatable for most people’s tastes and needs to be removed before eating. With the right techniques, peeling yams can be fast and easy. When in doubt, take the time to peel your yams to ensure soft, luscious flesh ready to be transformed into delicious dishes.