The sweet and creamy innards of the sweet potato are an instant comfort on a cold winter day. Whenever I can, I pair them with the roast chickens, fried pork chops, or other meaty, substantial mains I gravitate to during the cold months. My fandom for this orange tuber has yet to really meld with my enthusiasm for grilling, though. Although grilling is no problem during the winter for me—I still plan my weekends around grilling time—I haven't been able to match the intense sweetness and velvety texture of an oven-roasted sweet potato.
I have had some good sweet potato dishes come off the grill, like this sweet potato and corn salad, but in those cases, it the potato itself was just one piece of a larger whole. I figured it was time I sat down and really worked at achieving an ideal grilled sweet potato, stripped down to its barest form. I'm talking about the slightly crisp outside, creamy inside, and rich natural sweetness that I love.
Take 1: The Nuke
I started off with the least time-intensive way of cooking potatoes. I've become a big fan of microwaving my russets to jumpstart the cooking process, before ultimately finishing them on the grill. If it works well with one potato, why not another?
I approached the sweet potato just as I would a regular one—by poking holes all over it to avoid a spud explosion. Then I zapped it until I inserting a paring knife into the center met with little-to-no resistance. It took a quick seven minutes.
Next, I cut it in half lengthwise, halved those halves, and then split those quarters for a total of eight, relatively even wedges. I brushed 'em with oil, threw on some seasoning, and cooked them over direct heat on the grill until they were browned (actually, more like blackened).
From start to finish, these clocked in at around the twenty minute mark, but time saved was poor compensation for the end results. The outsides were flaccid and unappealing, the insides mushy, and they had so little sweetness that the char gave them an overpowering burnt flavor.
Take 2: The Boil
I hoped my second short-cut version would fare better. Instead of starting the process with a whole potato, I first cut my wedges and then placed them in a cold pot of salted water. I turned my stove on to medium-high and let the water come to a boil, simmering the potato until it was just softened throughout—about ten minutes total. Strained, oil, and seasoned, I grilled them just like the first batch, quickly browning them over direct heat.
This attempt offered an incremental improvement over the microwave—sweeter and less mushy—but there was still no crispness to the exterior. They were far from what I would call an ideal potato, so I kept testing.
Take 3: The Grill and Roast
Obviously shortcuts were not going to work here, so I took to the grill and stayed with it, knowing it would take a whole lot longer but not really caring—I was on a mission to make a truly great sweet potato.
I went first with a grill-roast method, starting with raw wedges over direct heat. As with the past two attempts, the exterior cooked incredibly quickly, charring more than browning, and requiring a lot of attention to ensure it didn't outright burn to a crisp. Once they had nice visible grill marks, I moved the wedges over indirected heat, covered the grills, and let them roast until they were soft to their core.
After 45 minutes, these sweet potatoes already looked a million times more promising. The outsides had a dry-looking exterior that was wrinkled in spots, similar to the ones that come out of the oven. And one bite confirmed that they were on the mark—silky smooth and super sweet insides, paired with a slightly crisp exterior. I probably would have called it quits here, but I had one more method cooking up simultaneously.
Take 4: The Roast and Grill
Reversing the grill-roast method, I roasted this batch over indirect heat until they were cooked through and then finished them over direct heat. Since it had been almost an hour since I'd lit the fire, I thought the reduced heat would fail to deliver sufficient browning. Luckily, I was wrong.
Since the roasting had already drawn a lot of moisture from the exterior of the wedges, this batch browned easily, even over modest heat. And for the first time, they didn't overly char. The more controlled cook over direct heat was certainly a plus here, but could they match the flavor and texture of the grill-roasted ones that I'd thought were pretty close to perfect?
The answer was a somewhat mixed yes. The texture was actually more rich and creamy than the previous lot, and the outsides were comparable in their crispness. On the other hand, the sweetness was just a notch below the others; with less char, I think the flavor was more straightforward, since it wasn't compromised by burnt spots. In the end, this method won out. Not only did it deliver everything I wanted, but it provided a more controlled grilled experience, making it easiest to replicate.
Spuds and Spice
As much as I was after the sweet potato in its purest form, I do think they only get better with a little seasoning after they're cooked. I like to add a spicy contrast and earthy compliment to the wedges to take them beyond their natural sweetness. The spice mixture I use is composed of equal parts paprika, cumin, and chili powder, with a scant amount of cayenne. It's totally optional, but since I started finishing my sweet potatoes wedges like this, I've never looked back.
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.