What is Piloncillo?

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Reminiscent of caramel and molasses, piloncillo adds depth and unexpected hints of tanginess when added to sweet or savory preparations.

What Is Piloncillo?

Piloncillo is a popular Mexican sweetener. In other parts of Latin America, it’s referred to as “panela”, “rapadura”, or “chancaca.”

It’s made by cold-pressing sugarcane to extract its juice. The liquid is then boiled and evaporated until it becomes a thick syrup. After, the substance is poured into conical molds and left to harden. Once completely solid, it’s removed from the molds that give it its signature look. However, you can also find it in blocks or disks.

Unlike granulated sugars, piloncillo is completely unrefined. This makes it a much healthier sweetener alternative because it retains all of its natural molasses, nutrients, and minerals. Nonetheless, it’s still sugar and should be eaten in moderate amounts.

The taste is reminiscent of burnt caramel, molasses, and even a little rum. With hints of smokiness, tang, and earthiness, piloncillo provides a complex and exciting flavor profile to anything it’s added to.

One piloncillo cone.

Is Piloncillo The Same As Brown Sugar?

Although it’s often referred to as “Mexican brown sugar,” piloncillo and brown sugar are very different sweeteners.

Piloncillo is made by boiling and evaporating raw sugarcane juice, meaning it’s completely unrefined. Then it’s poured into molds and left to harden. When broken or crumbled, it’s extremely sticky and has a fruity, tangy flavor.

On the other hand, brown sugar is made by adding molasses back into regular (a.k.a. refined) white sugar. It’s also very sandy, dry, and doesn’t clump unless it’s exposed to humidity. In terms of flavor, it’s a lot like caramel but not much else.

What Does It Taste Like?

Piloncillo has a very complex flavor. It’s fruity, tangy, and sweet. The taste is reminiscent of burnt caramel, molasses, and toffee. It’s also got hints of rum, but there’s no alcohol in it.

There’s a subtle smokiness to it from the caramelization of the sugarcane juice. However, it’s also slightly refreshing and fruity, similar to the taste of roasted peaches or plums. It’ll add a pop of sweet vibrance to anything it’s added to.

Angled shot of three piloncillo cones over one another.

How to Cook with Piloncillo

Cooking with piloncillo is simple because you can add it to anything you’d add brown sugar or honey to. Think of it as any other sweetener, except with much more depth. However, you’ll need to do a bit of “prep work” beforehand by chopping it up or grating it.

Chop it. Piloncillo is extremely hard, so don’t even try to break it with your hands. What you need to do is place a moist kitchen rag on your counter and then place a cutting board on top. This is to prevent any sliding. Grab a sharp knife and carefully chop it into medium-large pieces or according to preference. You can also use a meat-mallet for this.

Grate it. This is probably the most practical way to have it on hand and ready to go. Use the largest slots on your cheese grater to carefully grate the piloncillo. When you throw it into your preparations, it’ll dissolve much faster. Don’t be tempted to throw it into your food processor or blender. If you do, it’ll likely burn out because of how hard piloncillo is.

Recipes That Use Piloncillo

Piloncillo can be used in a variety of salsas, dishes, drinks, and desserts. Here are some ideas:

  • Café de olla. This is traditional Mexican coffee made in a clay pot.
  • Capirotada. A Mexican dessert made with leftover bread rolls, like bread pudding.
  • Atole. This is a sweet, hot masa-based drink.
  • Cinnamon rolls. Definitely not your typical recipe but add some piloncillo to the brown sugar filling to instantly make your cinnamon rolls more exciting!
  • Morita-based salsa. Morita is a type of chile often used to make salsas. It’s got a fruity flavor profile that’s a lot like smoked chipotles in adobo and plums. Sprinkle some piloncillo into the salsa to balance out the flavors.
  • Buñuelos. These are like deep-fried, crispy tortillas that are tossed in cinnamon sugar. They’re popular desserts and can be sprinkled with piloncillo for a fun twist.
Three upright piloncillo cones.

Where To Find It

Piloncillo is available at most Mexican supermarkets or even the Latin American section in some grocery stores. If you can’t find it there, you can always get it online.

How to Store

Store piloncillo cones in a paper bag or an airtight container at room temperature. It will keep for up to a year as long as it’s in a dark place and away from sunlight. If the piloncillo is grated, keep it in an airtight container or jar at room temperature.

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I'm a trial & error, self taught, sugar addict who thankfully learned how to survive in the kitchen! I am also a wife, mama of 3.