What Is Piloncillo?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Baking ingredients
Pilocillo is a potent ingredient in authentic Mexican cuisine John Block/Getty Images

Intro

Piloncillo is a raw form of pure cane sugar that is commonly used in Mexican cooking and is sometimes referred to as Mexican brown sugar. This type of sugar has not been processed, leaving it with a golden brown color and a deliciously rich flavor similar to molasses, although it does not have any molasses in it. Piloncillo, also known as panela and panocha, can be used in the same way other types of sweeteners are used.

Fast Facts

Also Known as: panela and panocha

Varieties: blanco (light) and oscuro (dark)

Origin: Mexico

What Is Piloncillo?

Piloncillo
The Spruce / Chelsie Kenyon

Piloncillo is made by boiling down cane juice into a thick, crystalline syrup. It is then poured into cone-shaped molds where it is left to harden. The name piloncillo means "pylon" for its conical shape. It has an earthiness to it that has hints of both bitter and sweet.

Similar to brown sugar, there are two types of piloncillo available: blanco (light) and oscuro (dark). The blanco piloncillo will have a more subtle flavor while the oscura is richer and most like molasses. The cones are sold by the ounce and can be roughly four times the cost of brown sugar.

Piloncillo vs. Brown Sugar

As piloncillo is sometimes referred to as Mexican brown sugar, it is easy to think the two are the same. But these sugars are actually very different. Piloncillo is pure sugar with no additives, while brown sugar is made from refined white sugar. And though both are offered in light and dark varieties, what creates the two shades of brown in each sugar is very different. Blanco piloncillo is made from green sugarcane, while oscuro is made from purple sugarcane. Light and dark brown sugars, on the other hand, are distinguished by the amount of molasses added.

Their taste also differs: Piloncillo's flavor is more intricate than brown sugar, with a deeper richness and more complex flavor profile. The texture of the two sugars is dissimilar as well; piloncillo is very hard, and brown sugar is soft and pliable.

To substitute brown sugar for piloncillo, use 1 cup of dark brown sugar and 2 tablespoons molasses for each 8- to 9-ounce cone.

Piloncillo Uses

Piloncillo
The Spruce / Chelsie Kenyon

Piloncillo can be used as both a sweetener and a spice. Considering it has such a complex flavor profile, it adds an interesting taste to desserts, sauces, meat rubs, and hot and cold beverages. Before using piloncillo in a recipe, it must be chopped or grated.

How to Cook With Piloncillo

Chopping piloncillo is one of the quickest ways to break it up into pieces. Use a sharp, serrated knife in a slicing motion to scrape and chop it. Some larger chunks may break off during this process; chop them further if necessary. Depending on the recipe, the chunks may be fine to use as they will dissolve (like in syrup). Sometimes piloncillo can be too hard to chop. When this is the case, soften it by microwaving for 10 to 20 seconds (or a little longer for a very hard cone) to make working with it easier.

When very fine piloncillo is called for, it is best to use a grater. It does take a little more time than chopping, but it is worth the effort, particularly when adding to cold drinks. Rub the piloncillo over the surface of the grater to grind it down.

What Does It Taste Like?

Piloncillo has a much more complex flavor than brown sugar. It is reminiscent of burnt caramel, with some smokiness and hints of rum. A slightly acidic finish balances out the sweetness.

Piloncillo Recipes

Many delicious Mexican recipes use piloncillo, including desserts as well as hot and cold beverages. It is also an interesting ingredient in savory recipes and can be made into a syrup to pour over buñuelos.

Where to Buy Piloncillo

Cones of piloncillo are packaged in plastic and sold in various sizes, from small 2-ounce cones to large 8-ounce cones. Some recipes will list piloncillo in pounds, as in "1 pound of piloncillo." This may sound like a lot, but it is just two 8-ounce cones. 

Piloncillo is sold in Mexican and Latin American groceries (where it may be labeled as panela) as well as supermarkets located in an area with a Latin population. It can also be purchased online. 

Storage

Piloncillo should keep for a year or more under the right conditions. Store the cones in a cool, dark, and dry location, and ensure that the cone is tightly wrapped.