Chef notes: Piloncillo or “Mexican brown sugar”

Chef notes: Piloncillo or “Mexican brown sugar”

I love to wander into tiny ethnic markets and browse the shelves looking for a new ingredient (preferably something I’ve never even heard of before) to bring home, research, and try some new recipes.  I don’t know about you but I get tired of my own cooking and from time-to-time need to force myself to get out of my comfort zone.  A new ingredient, from an ethnic food that I enjoy, is just the trick.  Not only do I get to try new recipes but I will often identify ways to update a “tried and true” dish with a new flavor or texture.


Recently, I stumbled across piloncillo in a Latin market. The cashier told me that it was “Mexican brown sugar” so I grabbed a couple of cones and headed home to see what I could find out. It turns out that piloncillo refers to the traditional cone shape that the panela and panocha is produced.  Must panela/panocha is labeled piloncillo but if you have trouble finding it you can ask for it by either name. Piloncillo comes in two varieties, light (blanco) and dark (oscuro). Piloncillo is unlike our overly processed white sugar and even less processed than brown sugar, which these days is just white sugar colored with molasses. In fact, it’s about as unprocessed as you can get. Piloncillo is simply sugar cane juice reduced to a thick, crystallized syrup that is then poured into cone shaped molds and dried. It’s full of impurities that impart a deep rum flavor with earthy notes of smokiness and caramel. It’s not as sweet as regular white sugar but still plenty sweet to be used in candies and all types of traditional Mexican deserts.

Getting the piloncillo into a form easier for using is the difficult part. If only need a small amount I’d recommend using a rasper or the fine grater. If you need a large amount just hack of a chunk with a good sized knife and chop it down into very small pieces. If it’s too hard you can always pop it in the microwave for a few seconds (start with 10-15) to soften it up a bit. When substituting in baking you should always use weight measurements to ensure good results. Do not break up the cone and attempt to measure it by the cup. To store, wrap tightly and keep in a cool, dry pantry. It will keep indefinitely. If you can’t find piloncillo, and you want to try some of the recipes, you can substitute it by weight with dark brown sugar and molasses (1 cup dark brown sugar + 2 teaspoons of molasses).

Suggested uses include:

Substitute it for a portion of the white sugar in baked dessert recipes like cookies, brownies, and cakes

use it in place of brown sugar

sweeten ice cream or puddings

homemade caramel

dry rubs for meats (good lord just imagine it on pork belly)

The one thing I’m dying to try it in? Flan.

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  1. 7Servings
    February 22, 11:03 Reply

    Where did you find this beauty? is there anywhere to buy it in Toronto?

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