In researching recipes for this bake off, I re-discovered one of my earliest interactions with this style of “bake off” posts (which definitely unconsciously inspired this post). Back in 2012, I was an avid follower of Cannella Vita and one day Erica posted a “recipe showdown” between four different sweet potato casseroles, crowning the Ruth’s Chris recipe the winner (with Martha closely following). So for this bake off, I took a leaf out of her book and put both Ruth’s Chris and Oh She Glows in the running–let’s see if Ruth can hang on to her crown!
Most of the sweet potato casseroles were assembled the day before and baked the day of. 28 friends participated in tasting and ranking for the below scores. Each taster ranked each casserole on an overall scale of 1-10 and then ranked all casseroles in order of preference.
Recipe selection: For this test, I selected a diverse group of casseroles that ranged from a marshmallow-topped, brown buttered casserole to pecan-crusted casseroles, to ones that incorporate both marshmallows and crumbles to a vegan option. For a full list of the casserole finalists I considered (you can see how similar many recipes are), you can view my Google Spreadsheet. Here are the ones I tested:
- Oh She Glows
- Serious Eats
- The Kitchn
- America’s Test Kitchen
- Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Ruth Chris
- How Sweet Eats
Is it really a bake off if there isn’t an obvious front-runner and a universal bomber? I think not. As usual, the tastes and textures varied wildly, far more than I expected based on the fairly basic recipes.
Here’s your regular disclaimer that I am an amateur baker/cook, that taste is incredibly subjective, and that this is certainly a very small subset of all possible casserole recipes. I try to get a good sampling of data to back up the rankings, but the group’s #1 casserole may not be your personal #1–so I encourage you to read through the extended reviews to find a recommendation that fits your tastes.
Note that Ruth Chris and Saveur actually came close to a virtual tie. You can see from the chart that while Ruth had a higher average rating, Saveur had a much tighter distribution. This means that more people thought that Saveur was a strong casserole while Ruth’s casserole was a bit more divisive.
You can also see casseroles like America’s Test Kitchen ranked really highly with at least one person (though others rated it much lower, bringing down the overall average), showing the importance of personal preference. And even though the bottom few casseroles are all clustered around the 2-6 point range (which you may think indicates that no one liked them), I still believe that most of these casseroles, as standalone dishes, would do just fine at a gathering.
Oh She Glows: Angela is probably my favorite vegan blogger–I’ve made many of her recipes with great success, so I trusted that this casserole would be able to hold its own against conventional counterparts. The sweet potatoes are mashed with just a bit of vegan butter, coconut oil, vanilla, maple syrup and spices and topped with an oat and pecan crumble. Unfortunately–in what seems to be an unfortunate pattern for any recipe involving coconut oil–this casserole did not please most tasters. The biggest complaint tasters voiced was that it was “bland,” “needs more spice” and “not sweet enough.” When you compare the relative amount of 3 tablespoons of fat, 2.5 tablespoons of sweetener to the amount of butter/sugar in the other casseroles, it’s easy to see why this one tasted bland in comparison. Tasters also likened the topping to granola–which some actually liked, though others thought it was “too oat-y and healthy tasting” and “slightly dry.” Personally, I don’t think 16-23 minutes of baking time was enough in the oven to get the topping nice and brown. If I made this casserole again, I would use vegan butter exclusively (omitting coconut oil–or even butter, if there are no vegans present), increase the amount of maple syrup and spices in both the filling and topping, and bake the casserole for longer (at least 30 min or so) to get the topping browned.
Make this if: you are vegan, or have some vegans in your life. Or just someone who wants a healthy (and healthy-tasting) sweet potato casserole.
The Kitchn: The photos of this casserole are utterly picturesque, with lightly golden peaks of torched meringue covering a yolk-studded sweet potato souffle base. The directions in this recipe say to whip the meringue topping to stiff peaks, but somehow I feel they would have been better left at soft peaks (admittedly I did leave it in the oven for a tad too long, hence the very brown meringue). Virtually everyone did not enjoy the meringue topping (“ABSOLUTELY NOT. SO EGGY. WHY” raged one taster), with several suggestions that marshmallows would be better than the very eggy-tasting meringue. People were split on the sweet potato filling–some enjoyed the spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of fresh thyme), but others felt it wasn’t the best blend of spices. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of nutmeg and felt it came through pretty strongly in this casserole. The texture was very thick and souffle-esque thanks to the addition of the four egg yolks (a nice no-waste move as four egg whites get whipped for the meringue topping).
Make this if: you are a meringue fan, you like a slightly thicker potato texture, and you love cinnamon and nutmeg.
Serious Eats: I had an inkling this casserole may not do very well among my tasters due to the fact that it was developed to combat the traditional “achingly sweet” marshmallow topping (to me, marshmallow toppings are “normal sweet”). The base includes a whopping 6 pounds of sweet potatoes slow roasted in a foil package at a low temp to encourage extra caramelization of the sweet potatoes, then mashed with thyme-infused brown butter, some grated ginger and a dab of buttermilk or sour cream, all topped with mini marshmallows. Sure enough, tasters fixated on the tang from the sour cream and noted that it was “savory” “bland” and “nothing special.” Interestingly, quite a few also negatively commented on the texture–“tasted like baby food” “oddly smooth” “gooey mush”–this made me wonder if the slow roasting technique actually led to overcooked potatoes since I left them in the oven for about 20 extra minutes. On the positive side, several noted the buttery flavor, but most felt it was lacking sweetness. However, I think this would be a great casserole to make for more adult palates (e.g. those people who are always complaining that desserts are “too sweet”) since the brown buttered sweet potatoes are really tasty. Just, you know, not when you’re expecting the traditional casserole. I’d also recommend increasing the marshmallow amount–multiple tasters noted that the marshmallows were too sparse. Look, if you’re going to do marshmallows, you may as well go all in.
Make this if: you’re serving palates who prefer less sweet dishes.
Sally’s Baking Addiction: I breathed a sigh of relief at Sally’s casserole–just 2 pounds of potatoes (instead of a large commitment of 5-6), and a promising cast of characters that foreshadowed success: cream for richness, butter, brown sugar, vanilla, salt and eggs. The pecan topping also seemed safely traditional with a dash of cinnamon added to pecans, sugar, butter and flour. Sadly, this casserole didn’t quite wow me next to the others, and many tasters felt similarly. Interestingly, tasters were split between camp “bland” vs. “buttery af” for the potatoes. The potatoes weren’t quite sweet enough for my palate, and I didn’t love the whole pecans on top compared to others that chopped up the pecans in the topping (several tasters agreed, but this is obviously a personal preference). On the plus side, I enjoyed the flavor of the topping and the creamy, “velvety” texture of the potatoes (the recipe calls for potatoes to be whipped with a mixer until you reach your desired texture, an extra step that I thought was unnecessary until I tasted them), though others thought the potato mixture leaned more “goopy.” One taster dubbed this casserole “extraordinarily forgettable,” and in this particular cast of casseroles, I tend to agree. It’s not bad. It’s just not great.
Make this if: you’re looking for a smaller commitment with uber-creamy, not-too-sweet potatoes.
America’s Test Kitchen: As usual, America’s Test Kitchen stood out from the rest with a slightly unusual cooking process. Five pounds of potatoes are skinned, chunked, and cooked down in a big pot with a slew of butter and brown sugar until softened and candied, then blanketed with a sugary pecan topping enhanced with an egg white to create an extra crisp top. Visually, it looked very similar to Sally’s casserole, but the potatoes were quite a bit sweeter (which most tasters, including me, liked). Interestingly, multiple tasters commented on the fact that this casserole tasted like it had less sugar (hah, not really), but that they still liked the flavor. “Most authentic sweet potato flavor,” claimed one taster. “Appearance wise, looks healthy. Very surprised how delicious the sweet potatoes are,” said another. Some complained that the potatoes were too dense while others appreciated the texture, and that the potatoes weren’t too “smushed.” Unfortunately, any crispness from the egg white topping was lost in the wait time between the baking and the tasting because I couldn’t detect much of a textural difference. This is a delicious casserole to be sure, and overall a relative crowd-pleaser.
Make this if: you like candied sweet potatoes with some added texture and a sweet and spicy topping.
How Sweet Eats: I’ve been an avid reader of Jessica’s blog for years, and I’ve long been curious about her “lightened up” casserole. With a oat crumble and marshmallow topping and a sweet potato layer spiked with coconut milk, it seemed healthy-ish while still being decadent. Sure enough, tasters loved the sweet and crunchy topping laced with marshmallows (again, add more marshmallows than called for for maximum delight). “Perfect blend and consistency, love the crunch!” exclaimed one taster. Although the inclusion of coconut has historically tended to be quite divisive, tasters actually commented positively on its inclusion here: “commendable use of nutmeg and coconut,” said one. “Coconutty and well-balanced,” said another. Many picked up on the maple flavor in this. Of course, not everyone loved the coconut (“crust texture is too chewy from the coconut,”) and several tasters, including me, were not too fond of the filling, primarily due to the strong nutmeg notes. If you are also not a fan of nutmeg, I’d recommend omitting it–without it, it would probably vy for one of my top favorites!
Make this if: you’re trying to please both crumble- and marshmallow-topping lovers, and you’re looking for a slightly healthier option (especially if you love nutmeg, maple and coconut).
Saveur: This casserole combines an oat- and pecan-based crumble with a sprinkling of marshmallows topping over a cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger-spiced sweet potato filling. For the most part, tasters loved the overall flavor and balance of this casserole. “Really nice cinnamon flavor, not too sweet, traditional,” said one taster. Most loved the touch of toasted marshmallows on top of the crumble, and several commented on its nostalgic value (“like mom used to make”). Overall, there were very few critiques of this casserole except for the texture of the freshly grated ginger (which was my least favorite part about this dish). I think the casserole would be much stronger without the ginger for more traditional palates (perhaps you could sub in ginger spice instead). Predictably, the only other tweak I would make is to add far more marshmallows as 1/4 cup is just silly.
Make this if: you love a cinnamon-spiced, “traditional” casserole with both crumble and marshmallow.
Ruth’s Chris: Described as “knock-your-socks-off-tasty” in the recipe showdown referenced above, this recipe comes from Ruth’s Chris Steak House and clearly lives up to its descriptor given the many copycat recipe iterations on the internet. In fact, there’s so many iterations (with varying amounts of butter) that it was hard to find the “original” recipe. Finally, after watching a grainy YouTube video of a Ruth’s Chris chef making the recipe, I went with a version I found that uses a full stick of butter in both the potato mixture and the pecan topping. Unsurprisingly, this recipe that’s stacked with as much butter and sugar as a cake (1 cup of sugar, 2 sticks of butter, funnily enough one taster described the topping as “so crunchy BASICALLY CAKE I LOVE IT”) was the clear winner of this bake off. “My soul left my body,” said one taster. Even though we used canned sweet potatoes, people still loved the sweet filling and the buttery crust studded with chopped pecans. “Very flavorful crust,” “praliney” “great topping, great texture,” said tasters. The crust was, in fact, so buttery that the casserole was nearly swimming in its own juices. I don’t think there would be any issue with halving the butter in the topping (as per many other copycat recipes). Some, of course, felt it was too sweet (” I love it but only want a bite, too sweet homie,” “overwhelmingly sweet”). “Too much butter :(” said one. Take that as you will.
Make this if: you want a dessert-like, very sweet, showstopper of a casserole with a candied crust that is sure to impress everyone (except those that find everything “too sweet”).
Here are my thoughts on what I will consider doing with future sweet potato casseroles after making and eating tons of it (I will probably revisit Ruth’s Chris when I’m feeling decadent, ATK if I’m in a pecan mood, and Saveur if I’m feeling regular):
- Canned vs. baked vs. boiled sweet potatoes: I was positive that baking sweet potatoes would yield the best results, but guess what? After being smothered in butter/brown sugar/coconut oil/cream/vanilla/spices/etc, I couldn’t tell you which technique was really best. Especially when you’re making a decadent casserole like Ruth’s Chris, I think it’s totally justifiable to use canned sweet potatoes if you’re short on time. I personally would save the baked sweet potatoes for a plainer application (or unless you have the oven on anyway).
- Baking potatoes in foil vs. not: I found that the potatoes baked in foil packages for the Serious Eats recipe didn’t come out of their skins as easily as the potatoes I simply put on a baking tray for The Kitchn’s recipe. My tip? No need to foil them.
- To chop or not to chop: This probably came through strongly during the discussion, but I think chopped pecans lead to a nicer, more even-textured crust on casseroles. Whole pecans are just a big commitment on your fork, amirite?
- To whip or not to whip: I had only ever previously mashed sweet potatoes for casserole by hand with a fork, but I liked the uber-smooth texture from an electric mixer. Would repeat.
- Marshmallows vs. pecans: This may be a coincidence, but two out of the top three casseroles utilized marshmallows in addition to a nutty crumble. I know there are avid pecan-topping lovers out there, but I feel fairly strongly that using both marshmallows and pecans can only result in a more delicious casserole. Discuss.
TL;DR: Make this one if…
You’re short on time: Ruth’s Chris with canned sweet potatoes
Best taste for least effort: Ruth’s Chris with canned sweet potatoes
You hate sweet casseroles: Serious Eats
You love sweet casseroles: Ruth’s Chris
You love pecans: America’s Test Kitchen or Sally’s Baking Addictions
You want a slightly offbeat casserole: How Sweet Eats
You want it all, marshmallows AND pecans: Saveur or How Sweet Eats
You want that traditional casserole taste: Saveur or Ruth Chris
You want a healthy/vegan casserole: Oh She Glows