While I’m certainly a fan of sweet potatoes, the classic marshmallow-topped casserole isn’t something I grew up with in the Southwest. My mom wasn’t a fan and, well, that was that. The sweet potatoes that did grace my family’s Thanksgiving table were laced with chipotles and cream. As I got older and had the privilege of eating at many other holiday tables, I finally got to dig my spoon into the burnished bronze marshmallow topping. What a disappointment to find out that, after years of anticipation, I wasn’t a fan either.
Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of sweet potato casseroles — blanketed with marshmallows, studded with pecans, and speckled with oatmeal streusel. I found them all a little over-the-top and sugary-sweet, and couldn’t understand why they weren’t reserved for the desert table. And that’s the reason I was so eager to take on this sweet potato showdown. Could I find a sweet potato casserole I would be excited to add to my family’s roster of Thanksgiving go-tos?
Meet Our 4 Sweet Potato Casserole Contenders
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I was curious about how marshmallows ended up on top of sweet potatoes in the first place, so I did some research. The story is classic Americana. Saveur reports that in 1917, a marshmallow company hired Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine, to write a booklet of recipes to encourage consumers to buy more of their product.
But sweet potato casserole has been a fixture on Southern tables long before marshmallows got involved. Southern sweet potato casseroles tend to call for mixing the sweet potatoes with dairy and eggs, along with brown sugar or another sweetener, and then the whole thing is topped with a sugary pecan mixture.
Because of this, I decided to test two marshmallow-topped and two pecan-topped recipes. I read through top search engine results, as well as versions from top recipe websites. In the end, I landed on four popular recipes that varied in the potato cooking method, the amount of sweetener, and the type of dairy used.
Simply Recipes’ Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows skips the sugar in the potatoes, opting instead for orange juice and zest for a little natural sweetness and flavor. The sweet potatoes are halved and roasted at a high temperature. Interestingly, the recipe opts for halved full-sized marshmallows instead of the typical minis.
Serious Eats’ Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows goes hard on the savory mix-ins to contrast the mini marshmallow topping. Brown butter and sage are my favorite fall flavors, and I was hopeful about what they’d bring to this dish. The potatoes are roasted whole at a low temperature for twice as long as the other recipes.
Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s version sweetens the potato mix with more than a cup of sugar, plus another cup of brown sugar for the pecans on top. The potatoes are roasted whole in a moderate oven. I was very nervous this was going to be tooth-achingly sweet, but wanted to try something more traditionally Southern.
How I Tested the Sweet Potato Casseroles
I purchased all the sweet potatoes from the same store. Sweet potatoes can vary wildly in size, and I spent a considerable amount of time digging through the pile at the store, weighing them all to find exactly what each recipe called for. All of the casseroles were cooked the same day. I prepped the sweet potato mix for all four recipes, then held them all until they were ready to go into the oven for their second cooking time so that they were all hot and able to be enjoyed side-by-side. I gathered my family and a few neighbors for their thoughts.
1. The Most Disappointing: Serious Eats’ Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows
Serious Eats is one of my go-to sources when I’m looking for a really solid recipe for a classic dish, so I was surprised when this one really missed the mark for me. To start, it took me nearly three hours to bake the potatoes. Cook time aside, the recipe goes hard on savory ingredients to contrast the sweetness of the potatoes, which I was excited about. Unfortunately, those ingredients completely overpowered the sweet potatoes. When paired with the sweet marshmallows on top, the whole thing just tasted sort of weird.
2. For Marshmallow-Lovers: Simply Recipes’ Sweet Potato Casserole with Marshmallows
This recipe starts with roasting halved sweet potatoes at 425°F, which produced evenly cooked sweet potatoes. The sweet potato mixture features a hefty dose of orange (the zest and juice of a whole orange) and I found the citrus flavor overwhelming. Most notably, the recipe instructs you to halve a 12-ounce bag of large marshmallows for the topping. If you’re in it for the marshmallows, this may be the recipe for you.
3. The Subtly Sweet Southern Classic: Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s Sweet Potato Casserole
I was worried this recipe was going to be like Southern sweet tea — loved by those who grew up on it, but too much for me. It had more sugar than any of the other recipe, but worked surprisingly well. It was still sweet, but not overly so. With three eggs and three cups of milk, the sweet potato mixture was surprisingly light and the perfect contrast to the crunchy pecan streusel on top. When taste testing this one, everyone’s spoons kept dipping back for more.
4. The Most Balanced: Bon Appétit’s Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Brown Sugar and Pecans
This is the only recipe that called for boiling the sweet potatoes, which I ended up preferring. Chopping the sweet potatoes meant that they cooked more quickly and evenly. The cooked sweet potatoes are blended in the food processor, which made them ultra smooth. The filling is sweetened with a little maple syrup and lightened with eggs, then the casserole is topped with brown sugar and pecans. I liked that the casserole was sweet and dense — almost like pie, in a good way. This recipe just edged out the Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock recipe; it’s the one that will have a place on my Thanksgiving table from here on out.