Piloncillo, also known as panela and panocha, is an unrefined cane sugar from Mexico that is pressed into the shape of a stubby cone. “Piloncillo” came from the word “pilon,” which are weights shaped like cones that were commonly used in markets. Sugar has been made into this cone shape in Mexico for centuries. Piloncillo cones vary in size from less than an ounce to nine ounces and three inches tall. The cones are uniformly very hard and caramel brown in color like brown sugar.
Piloncillo is made from sugarcane juice. The juice is extracted from sugar canes and concentrated by boiling. Lime juice is often added to the liquid to force protein impurities to coagulate so they can be skimmed off. The liquid is boiled until the sugar begins to crystallize and the sugar is removed from the liquid and set out to dry. The sugar is dark and tastes like molasses, another minimally refined sugar. Because it is unrefined it contains additional minerals and vitamins not present in refined white sugar.
This sugar can be purchased in most Hispanic markets and potentially in a well-stocked ethnic section of regular supermarkets. Online food catalogs also sell piloncillo. It can be purchased in two forms, a lighter type (blanco) and a darker type (oscuro). The sugar is available year-round. Store it in an airtight container in a pantry indefinitely.
Because piloncillo is so hard it needs to be chopped with a heavy knife or pounded with a hammer to break it up. The sugar can then be used in any recipe that calls for dark brown sugar. It is traditionally used in a variety of Mexican beverages including café do olla (Mexican coffee), champurrado (a hot chocolate thickened with masa), and Agua Fresca De Jamaica (hibiscus flower water). It is also used in capirotada (a spicy bread pudding) and camotes (sweet potatoes) and in a variety of desserts like candy and cookies.
Piloncillo can be used in any recipe that calls for brown sugar. Likewise, a piloncillo substitute can be made from 1 cup brown sugar and 2 tablespoons molasses.