Piloncillo is an unrefined cane sugar that is popularly used in Mexican cooking (for example, the pumpkin and cinnamon soup recipe from our Holiday Food issue). The hard sugar, which can be used in place of brown sugar in most recipes, predates the arrival of the Spanish. It’s a well rehearsed process, then, of squeezing juice from sugar canes, boiling it into a thick substance, and then pouring it into molds. There it hardens into a compact cone, which is where the Spanish name for the sugar comes from, as in “little pylon.”
We love piloncillo, which is also known as panela or panocha and comes in a light (blanco) and dark (oscuro) variety, for the unique flavor it gives dishes. Aside from general sweetness, piloncillo adds terrifically caramely, almost smokey elements. The drawback is that it can be hard to use. (As a replacement, some suggest using brown sugar and a couple teaspoons of molasses, but we beg to differ.)
We either shave with a serrated knife or grate it. Although if you’re preparing a soup or other recipe in which the sugar is melted down, you can simply let the sugar dissolve in the stock. You may wish to break it up a bit before hand, to expedite the process.
So give piloncillo a try this holiday season, when it comes to cooking anything that usually calls for brown sugar. We’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy the flavor change. It’s lasted for thousands of years, so there must be something right about piloncillo!
The Details: Piloncillo can be purchased in one of the many Mexican markets around town and, at times, in the ethnic food aisles of major grocery stores. Or order online by clicking here.