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What is Piloncillo?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Piloncillo is a form of Mexican sugar that is dark brown in color. It is known for its strong molasses flavor, though this comes from the sugar being relatively unrefined rather than from adding molasses to the sugar. Piloncillo can be substituted for dark brown sugar in most recipes. It is particularly good in recipes where a strong molasses flavor is desirable, such as in gingerbread, but in Mexico it’s also the primary sugar used in many beverages and in classic desserts like flan.

You can find piloncillo, which will taste different than American brown sugar, in a number of Latin grocery stores, or in regular stores located in areas with a high Latino population. It is frequently sold in cones, each weighing about 8 ounces (226.8 g). It can also be packed in bricks, and sold either for home or commercial use in this fashion. It’s fairly easy to mold piloncillo because lack of extensive processing makes it somewhat moist. It can dry out over time, if not stored suitably. Some people make tiny one-ounce (28.35 g) cones as a treat or as individual serving sizes for use in sweetening drinks like tea or coffee

In fact, piloncillo is very similar to the way that sugar cones made during the early American Colonial era were structured, and are still made in reminiscence of that time. However, while you may pay a lot to get pre-made colonial sugar cones today, piloncillo especially purchased in Mexico or at a South American or Mexican grocery stores is usually much less expensive. Also note that when you’re looking for this sugar, it may be called panela instead of piloncillo.

Some consider piloncillo to be inferior rough sugar because it is “under processed.” Others praise this factor, since some, especially in the health food industry, now regard normal processed white sugar as not very healthful and something to be avoided. Panela along with other forms of raw or unrefined sugar may become more common in the US if people believe it as a more healthful substitute for brown sugar.

If you can’t find piloncillo, you can basically approximate its taste in recipes that call for it. For every 8 ounces (226.8 grams) of plain American dark brown sugar, add a tablespoon (14.79 ml) of molasses to get a similar tasting sugar. With this mix, you can use molds and actually create little cones of sugar, which can be very pretty and decorative.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon355139 — On Nov 13, 2013

@animalz: Brown sugar in the U.S. is mostly highly refined white beet sugar with molasses added to it.

Piloncillo, panela, sucanat, etc., are sugars made from sugar cane, and refined from less to more depending on color, dark to light.

There are versions of sucanat, made in Costa Rica, that are generally easier to use than piloncillo. Sucanat comes in brown granules that pour easily or scoop with a spoon. Pilincillo is hard and requires chopping or sawing into small pieces that don't dissolve as easily. But it's good. Both are good, and they're essentially the same thing: partially refined sugar cane syrup.

By anon257795 — On Mar 28, 2012

I've been making piloncillo and selling it here in Costa Rica for over 35 years. It's the real deal in sweetening, excellent in making fruit drinks. It's simply dehydrated sugar cane juice, no chemicals added, no doubt a very healthy food source. I've been waiting for the people in the states to get hip to it, so I can start exporting.

By kangaBurg — On Jul 04, 2011

I make candy as a hobby, and piloncillo great for making candy. It contains both fructose and sucrose. So, I can make candy without worrying about sugar crystals forming in it, and I don’t have to add any nasty corn syrup to stall sugar crystal formation.

Besides that, piloncillo is absolutely delicious, and loaded with healthy minerals. It’s my favorite sugar for candy making.

By smartypantz — On Jul 03, 2011

@Animalz – They’re not quite the same thing. Dark brown sugar is minimally processed, but piloncillo isn’t processed at all. It’s simply pure sugar from the sugar cane plant. It contains all of its molasses and original nutrients. That makes it richer than even dark brown sugar. In my opinion, it’s also healthier.

Another great thing about piloncillo is its long shelf life. If you store it in a cool, dry place, it will be edible almost indefinitely.

By Animalz — On Jul 02, 2011

What’s the difference between piloncillo and dark brown sugar? Aren’t they pretty much the exact same thing, except piloncillo contains more molasses?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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