What Is Piloncillo? How Is It Used?

Piloncillo is a unique and complex sweetener that brings an earthy flavor to many traditional Mexican dishes.

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Brown sugar on a rustic white background
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Piloncillo is an unrefined sugar that has flavors ranging from slightly burnt caramel to rum notes. It often has a hint of smokiness, too. In Mexico, the sweetener is always referred to as piloncillo, but in other parts of the world, such as Central and Latin America, the chocolaty brown sugar is called chancaca, rapadura, or panela.

The unique caramelized flavor of piloncillo is essential to traditional Mexican dishes like flan, capirotada, atole, and chocolate atole known as champurrado.

How Is Piloncillo Different Than Brown Sugar?

Although Piloncillo is often referred to as "Mexican brown sugar," the two sweeteners are quite different in creation and composition.

Brown sugar is refined white sugar that has molasses added back to it to achieve its darker color. Piloncillo is unrefined. It is made by boiling cane sugar juice and then pouring it into molds where it cools and hardens. Because of this simple process without multi-step refinement, piloncillo is classified as a "non-centrifugal sugar," along with unrefined muscovado, jaggery, and kokuto.

Brown sugar on a rustic white background
silvi78/Getty Images

Why Is Piloncillo Shaped Like a Cone?

The name piloncillo translates to "little loaf," but in stores, you'll most often find this complex sugar shaped like a cone. The cone shape of piloncillo comes from the molds in which the sugar is cooled and hardened. Cone sizes range from less than one ounce to over nine ounces. Piloncillo is always sold by the ounce, and recipes will often call for it by the ounce or pound because it is difficult to fit in a measuring cup.

Piloncillo is quite hard and can be broken by beating the cones with a meat tenderizer or mallet or by slicing with a serrated knife. It can also be grated into a sugar-like texture with a microplane or cheese grater, though the process is labor-intensive. Finally, it can be melted with a little water into a syrup which makes it easy to measure and requires no arm strength.

Where To Buy Piloncillo

It may be hard to find piloncillo. The best chance for tracking down this ingredient is in specialty Latin American or Mexican grocery stores. In larger chain stores, look for piloncillo in the Latin or international section instead of the baking aisles. Piloncillo can also be ordered online.

Champurrado
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What Does Piloncillo Add to Champurrado?

For champurrado, piloncillo is melted and adds to the thick, creamy texture of the traditional Mexican chocolate drink. The unrefined sugar also brings smokey and rum-like flavors that complement the earthy taste of Mexican chocolate. All of these ingredients combine to create a complex, comforting drink.

How to Make Champurrado with Piloncillo

One of the most difficult parts of making Champurrado is getting a smooth texture. The very fine masa flour sticks to everything (including itself!), creating clumps in the drink. To avoid this problem, traditional champurrado is stirred with a special whisk called a molinillo (which can be found online).

If you don't have a molinillo, use a blender or hand beaters to ensure your champurrado is clump-free.

Champurrado Recipe

Our original recipe for champurrado uses pinole, a ground corn flour, as the thickener. Masa is traditional, however, so you can use this recipe if you want to try that method.

2 1/2 cups whole milk

1 cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons piloncillo, chopped

1/4 teaspoon anise seed, crushed

1 disk Mexican chocolate

1/2 cup masa flour (masa harina)

1 cup water

  1. Heat milk in a saucepan over medium heat until it simmers. Add piloncillo, cinnamon, and anise and simmer until piloncillo melts completely, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add the Mexican chocolate disk and continue to simmer as chocolate melts.
  3. Meanwhile, use a blender, hand beaters, or a molinillo to beat together masa harina and water until it is completely smooth with no clumps.
  4. While stirring the chocolate mixture with a whisk, slowly pour masa mixture into the saucepan.
  5. Continue to whisk as the mixture thickens for another 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Remove cinnamon stick pour into a mug and serve.

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