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Piloncillo is an unrefined and uniquely flavored sugar that is used extensively throughout Central and Latin American cuisine. Find out everything you need to know about this sweetener in the following guide, including some plant-based recipe ideas!
Table of Contents
🍬 What is piloncillo?
Piloncillo (pronounced pee-lon-SEE-yoh) or chancaca is an unrefined form of cane sugar. It is generally sold in cone shapes and ranges from light brown to dark brown.
In English, “piloncillo” translates to pylon, which is likely where the Spanish name comes from. “Chanaca” is derived from the Nahuatl word chiancaca, meaning brown sugar.
It is found primarily in Mexico and other Latin American countries as a natural sweetener, but you can also spot similar unrefined cane sugar in Europe and India (known as panela or jaggery).
To use piloncillo in recipes, you can grate, shave, or chop the cones into smaller pieces. It is found in baked goods (capirotada), beverages (café de la olla), snacks (gorditas de piloncillo), and breakfasts (torrejas).
🤔 How is piloncillo made?
Piloncillo cones are made in just a few simple steps:
- Crush sugar cane in mills and collect the juice.
- Boil and reduce until it resembles a thick, molasses-like consistency.
- Pour syrup into cone-shaped molds.
- Dry and cool until the piloncillo hardens.
- Remove the cones from the molds, and package them to be sold.
✌️ Piloncillo varieties
Similar to brown sugar, piloncillo sugar comes in different varieties. These are the main colors:
- Piloncillo oscuro (dark)
- Piloncillo blanco (light)
Each type provides slightly unique flavor characteristics and is used for different recipes. For a mild molasses flavor, it’s best to use light piloncillo. For more robust caramel notes, opt for dark piloncillo.
🍴 Flavor profile
Piloncillo is often described as having a sweet, earthy, caramel-like flavor with notes of molasses, vanilla, and honey.
Piloncillo oscuro provides bold, complex flavors with heavy molasses notes. On the other hand, piloncillo blanco is lighter, less pronounced, and usually sweeter.
The flavor can vary depending on the type of cane sugar and amount of time it’s cooked for. To understand the difference between oscuro (dark) and blanco (light), picture the difference between regular dark and light brown sugar.
🍎 Health facts
Piloncillo is a great alternative to processed sugar since it’s natural, unrefined, and only made from one ingredient — sugar cane. These are the main health benefits of piloncillo:
- Nutrient-dense: Since it goes through very minimal processing, piloncillo retains more vitamins and minerals, like iron and magnesium, compared to regular white sugar.
- Low glycemic index: Piloncillo has a lower glycemic index than processed sugar, meaning it may help with better blood sugar regulation.
- Antioxidants: This natural sweetener contains antioxidants, like vitamin C, that help protect the body against chronic diseases.
Although it is by no means a “health food,” we think it’s important to know there are at least some benefits of using piloncillo over other refined sweeteners. As with other sweeteners, always consume it in moderation!
🧑🏻🍳 How to use piloncillo
You can use piloncillo in a variety of recipes to sweeten and add flavor. Serve it with coffee or tea, melt it into syrup, include it in baked goods, or combine it with spices like cayenne or star anise.
It’s typically used in drinks café de olla and champurrado. Since it’s associated with richness and warmth, it’s often utilized in Christmas dishes.
There are a few different ways to break up a piloncillo cone for recipes. A simple technique is to grate it on a cheese grater, which helps create a fine texture similar to brown sugar. Alternatively, you can roughly chop it with a knife.
If you’ll be melting down a whole piloncillo cone, you don’t have to grate or chop it at all. Just not that it will take longer to melt.
📋 Recipes with piloncillo
With so many ideas for recipes that feature piloncillo, we’ve narrowed down a list of our top picks. Try adding it to drinks, treats, and breakfasts like these:
- Gorditas de Piloncillo
- Tamarindo Drink
- Mexican Oatmeal
- Atole de Guayaba
- Tamarindo Candy
Piloncillo is easy to keep around for a long time, especially if it’s stored in the right conditions. It’s best to keep the cones in a cool, dark, and dry place like a cupboard or pantry.
We like to wrap ours in airtight glass containers as we find it controls the moisture level better. Plus, it helps keep insects out!
If you store your piloncillo this way, it should last for at least 6 months. It will harden over time, but you can soften it by placing it in a plastic bag and hitting it with a hammer or rolling pin.
🧐 What to look for when buying piloncillo
Here are a few things to consider when you’re purchasing piloncillo:
- Color: You’ll first need to decide whether you want to impart robust molasses flavors or more soft and subtle notes. This will help you determine if you need dark or light piloncillo. It should be brown, but ranging from light amber to very dark. Avoid anything with a red hue, since this may indicate it’s not fully matured.
- Texture: Piloncillo should be hard and compact with a slightly rough surface. If it’s soft or crumbly, it may mean it’s old or that it’s been in contact with moisture.
- Fragrance: The smell of piloncillo should be sweet and earthy with hints of molasses and caramel. Avoid piloncillo that smells sour or musty, which indicates spoiling.
- Size: Piloncillo cones come in different sizes, ranging from 1 to 9 ounces. Depending on the recipe you’re making, you may want to invest in a kitchen scale for more accurate measurements. You may also find pre-grated piloncillo in packaging. Just make sure the bag is reusable or you have adequate storage containers at home.
- Brand: Look for reputable brands that are known to have good quality products. Some brands use artificial colors and flavors, so you need to read the ingredient labels before purchasing. One of our go-to brands is Goya for reference.
💰 Where to buy piloncillo
Piloncillo can be found at most Latin American or Mexican markets if you happen to live by one. If you can’t find piloncillo, look for it under its many other names like panela, jaggery, chancaca, etc.
If you’re still having no luck, you can always order piloncillo online. When you’re buying piloncillo, always check the expiration date and condition of the product. If it’s online, look at reviews to choose a reputable seller.
Although piloncillo has a distinct flavor profile, there are some great substitutions if you’re in a pinch. These are the next best options:
- Brown sugar: The easiest replacement for piloncillo is brown sugar at a 1:1 ratio. If you want to emulate the rich complexity of piloncillo oscura, use dark brown sugar since there is more molasses added to it (you can even add more molasses).
- Cane sugar & molasses: If you can’t find brown sugar for some reason, use a 1:1 ratio of cane sugar and even more molasses to yield similar flavors to piloncillo.
- Muscovado sugar: Muscovado sugar is unrefined brown sugar that’s similar to piloncillo in taste and texture. Substitute it at a 1:1 ratio as well.
- Jaggery: Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar that undergoes a similar process to piloncillo. This ingredient is typically found in Indian cuisine and can be used in equal parts.
Just remember that each of these substitutions will alter the flavor and texture of your recipe, so it’s typically best to use them in recipes where the flavor of piloncillo is not the primary focus.
No, piloncillo is not the same as brown sugar. Sometimes piloncillo is referred to as Mexican brown sugar, but they are actually quite different. Brown sugar is made by adding molasses to processed white sugar. Piloncillo is unrefined cane sugar.
Yes, piloncillo is known as panela in some places outside of Mexico. In fact, it’s known by many names, like rapadura or chancaca, depending on the country.
Piloncillo is not as processed as regular sugar, which means it still retains some nutrients and minerals. However, this alone doesn’t make it healthy to eat in excess. Like any sugar, piloncillo should be consumed in moderation.
Yes, piloncillo can be used in place of brown sugar in most recipes, but there are a few considerations. Piloncillo has a more complex flavor than brown sugar, so it may alter the overall taste of the dish. Piloncillo is more dense than brown sugar once grated, so it may affect the texture of baked goods.
🤓 Learn about more ingredients
If you’re wondering what ingredients like chamoy or tomatillos are and how to use them, take a peek at some of our other guides:
As you can see, piloncillo is an extremely versatile ingredient that’s been used for centuries in Central and Latin American cuisine. It’s sweet, earthy, and caramel-like, and it also comes with more health benefits compared to traditional sugar.
Unless you live near a Mexican market, it’s best to buy it online from a reputable seller. If you have extra, store it in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Overall, piloncillo is a great alternative to processed sugar and is a must try ingredient for anyone wanting to explore Mexican or Latin American food.
Note: We’ve updated this post to include new information and helpful tips.