Sweet Potato Vs Pumpkin Pie: Everything You Need To Know

When it comes to the fall and winter holiday season pies, there's none more popular than the pumpkin pie. You might even call it the pum-king — but if you do you might just have a legion of sweet potato pie defenders gathering at your door. These two autumn standards tend to divide dessert lovers, but what makes sweet potato pie so different from pumpkin pie?

Pumpkin pie is a classic American Thanksgiving dessert across the country, but if you're from the Southern United States you might be more familiar with sweet potato pie. We've tried both pies and admittedly love them both for their own reasons. They differ in terms of ingredients, flavor, and texture, but both have rich histories that go back hundreds of years. Looking at information from historians and interviews with both home cooks and culinary professionals here's a detailed background on each of the pies, including a comparison of the nutritional value and preparation method for the two. In short, we've got you covered on everything you need to know about sweet potato pie versus pumpkin pie.

What is pumpkin pie?

We love a good pumpkin pie. It's been a cultural icon and a requirement for Thanksgiving tables around the country since the 19th century. This seasonal favorite is a custard pie made by combining canned or fresh pumpkin with fall spices, eggs, sugar, and sometimes milk, cream, or evaporated milk. It's baked in a pie crust, preferably a homemade one. Today, it's typically served with whipped cream on the side.

Thanks to the seasonality of the pumpkin, this dessert is most commonly associated with autumn weather and the fall months of September, October, and November in the United States. You can make pumpkin pie from scratch with real pumpkins, but with how easy it is to find canned pumpkin puree, it's probably not worth the work. You can experiment with making your own pie spice (if you don't buy it pre-made), but the trifecta of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg is a good place to start.

What is sweet potato pie?

At first glance, it can be easy to mistake sweet potato pie for pumpkin pie. With its orange appearance, it looks similar to pumpkin pie, and the two also share many of the same ingredients. Eggs, sugar, and spices play a major role here, but there are some big differences in how these pies are made. Obviously, this pie uses sweet potatoes instead of pumpkin, but it often also includes both evaporated milk and butter. It's worth noting that of all the pumpkin pie recipes we've looked at, very few include butter, but it's almost always included in sweet potato pie. 

Like its pumpkin cousin, you can make sweet potato pie yourself or buy it in a store — although depending on where you live, store-bought sweet potato pie might not be as common. In some parts of the Southern United States, though, sweet potato pie is the preferred dessert. This is due to its rich history which, for many Black Americans, goes back generations.

Pumpkin pie has colonial origins

Pumpkin pie has roots that stretch much further back into history than sweet potato pie. The autumnal dessert can be traced back to the day of the American colonies in the 1600s, and even further back to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; pumpkin pie originated in Western Europe in both France and England. Cookbooks dating back to the mid-1600s have recipes for the pumpkin custard we make for pies, although not all the recipes called for a crust and others were much different from the modern form the pie takes. 

By the end of the 18th century, what we now know as pumpkin pie had made its way to the United States. There are two recipes for the dessert in Amelia Simmons' 1796 cookbook "American Cookery," which is the first known cookbook ever written by an American. One of them, a recipe for a dish simply called Pompkin, very closely resembles the pie we now eat on Thanksgiving every year.

Sweet potato pie was born in the Southern United States

Sweet potato pie is equally American as, if not more American than, pumpkin pie, and the roots of this dessert are deeply tied to the history of Black culture in the United States. First appearing in cookbooks sometime in the 1800s, this was a dish born from an era where slavery ran rampant. To those who've been passed down recipes for generations, it's more than just a dessert. It's a symbol of heritage.

According to Adrian Miller's award-winning book "Soul Food," the sweet potato was popular with enslaved people because it was reminiscent of the yams native to West Africa. Sweet potatoes were embraced in place of yams, and soon the enslaved population began eating roasted sweet potatoes for dessert. Miller refers to a baked bread called sweet potato pound, calling it a precursor to the sweet potato pie. "As [they] got access to cooking technology and equipment, like ovens, that's when they started to add pie shells," Miller said in his book (via Southern Kitchen). As a result, the sweet potato pie has become a nostalgic dish that means home and family to many Black Americans from the South. 

Differences in flavor and texture

We can't deny that the flavors of sweet potato and pumpkin pie are similar, largely because both recipes pull from the same stable of fall spices. If you eat the two back to back, though, you'll notice a few things. For one, because the pumpkin is an entirely different vegetable from a sweet potato, sweet potato pie ends up tasting slightly sweeter than pumpkin pie.

The more important difference between sweet potato and pumpkin pie is texture. If you've had a pumpkin pie, you know that the custard is quite dense and thick. In comparison, a sweet potato pie is much more airy and light, and this makes almost more of a difference in the eating experience than flavor. Conversely, textures being slightly off can be really unsettling to people. Perhaps that's why when it comes to these pies, people so often side with the one they grew up eating.

How long does each last in the fridge?

Both sweet potato and pumpkin pies are custard pies, so they follow the same guidelines in regard to preservation and refrigeration. For starters, once your pie has cooled and is ready to eat, it shouldn't be left sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours at a time. This includes each time you bring it out of the fridge — and yes, both sweet potato and pumpkin pie need to be covered and refrigerated when stored. They can be kept in the fridge for about three to four days before you should probably throw the rest out.

If you bought your pumpkin pie from a store and it wasn't homemade by you or someone you personally know, it may last even longer than that. Some grocery store-bought pumpkin pies have preservatives that allow them to be shelf-stable for longer. You know your pie has these preservatives in it when it can be kept at room temperature for long periods of time, as it needs to be on supermarket shelves. In these instances, look for the sell-by date to determine how long your pie is good for. Sweet potato pies aren't as widely available commercially in a majority of states, so this ends up being less of an issue for that pie.

The best store bought options

When it comes to looking for good store-bought sweet potato and pumpkin pies, you need to be on the lookout for a few things. First off, for the bakery and supermarket bakery section pies, you want to look for that sell-by date. You want to make sure it's at least a few days ahead so your leftovers don't go stale. Secondly, as with any store-bought pie you want to make sure that the crust is golden brown, not too pale nor burnt. 

If you don't have time to make a fresh pie this year and have to choose one to pick up from the store, we recommend a pumpkin pie. In our experience, a freezer section take-and-bake pie is going to be a better option than the shelf-stable pie packed with preservatives. If you're looking for a good sweet potato pie option but don't live anywhere near where they are sold, the Little Pie Company in NYC and Dangerously Delicious Pies in Baltimore ship their seasonal sweet potato pies nationwide. 

Is sweet potato or pumpkin pie easier to make?

This one is going to depend on your preparation method but, in general, one of these pies is more troublesome than the other. With a sweet potato pie, recipes often call for you to peel and cook the sweet potatoes yourself; sweet potatoes are much easier to break down than an entire pumpkin, but that means that there are few shortcuts when making the former type of pie.

While you can do this same process with a pumpkin for pumpkin pie, using canned pumpkin is simply less effort for the same result. On the whole, this means that pumpkin pie is much easier to make, thanks to store-bought pumpkin puree being so ubiquitously available. This easy option eliminates a lot of the hard work of peeling and cooking your fresh gourds. You can even buy pumpkin pie filling pre-made and spiced, to save yourself even more work. With all that said, if you can find canned sweet potatoes or "yams," those can provide a tasty shortcut to a fast sweet potato pie. 

Is sweet potato or pumpkin pie better for you?

There are health benefits and drawbacks to each of these desserts, so it's tough to determine a clear winner here. Since the added ingredient list is often similar, this is mostly a comparison between sweet potatoes and pumpkins. Sweet potatoes provide a nutritious dose of beneficial vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta carotene, which can improve gut health and vision.

On the other hand, pumpkins are a lower calorie, lower carb option when doing a per-serving comparison; as well as being higher in calories, sweet potatoes contain nine times more sugar than pumpkins. These are both factors to consider when deciding which one to serve. If you have diabetics at your table, it might be worth it to go with pumpkin pie. If you're serving a bunch of kids who need their vitamins, well, sweet potato pie is looking like your best bet.

Overall, we have to give the edge to sweet potato pie in terms of which option is healthier. Just remember neither is a low-calorie dessert, which is maybe why they only come out during one season of the year.

What happens when you mix the sweet potato and pumpkin pie?

Let us commit some blasphemy over the next hundred words or so — if you've already chosen your side in this conflict, read no further. What would happen, hypothetically, if you combined sweet potato and pumpkin pie? Naturally, you would make sweet potato pumpkin pie. But what exactly does this hybrid taste like and does the addition of sweet potato to your usual pumpkin pie recipe (or vice versa) actually make a difference?

According to Chris Kimball of "America's Test Kitchen," the humble sweet potato is one ingredient that will absolutely improve your pumpkin pie recipe. As Kimball told NPR, sweet potatoes improve the flavor and bring it into better balance "because sweet potatoes actually have an earthier flavor — pumpkins are a little lighter." If you want the best of both worlds this Thanksgiving, try adding one cup of drained candied yams to your pumpkin pie recipe.