Spice Hunting: Piloncillo

For all the good sugar does us, we haven't been all too kind in return. How many ingredients out there are 1) a flavor enhancer, 2) one of the five main tastes, and 3) a vital structural component in countless recipes? Sugar's pretty awesome stuff, and it deserves our respect as a powerful ingredient with a range of impressive flavors.

Yup, that's right. A well-stocked pantry probably contains honey, molasses, raw sugar, and possibly other sweeteners. They all have flavors that should be considered part of the spice cabinet—when used in small amounts, they can dramatically compliment and enhance the flavor of other foods, and not just by sweetening them. This week's Spice Hunting is going to do its part to honor sugar by treating like the spice it deserves to be, starting with piloncillo.

"Modern brown sugar is just purified white sugar with some molasses mixed in."

Piloncillo is as minimally-processed as you can get your sugar, short of chewing it out of sugar cane yourself. It's the product of cane juice boiled down to a thick, crystalline syrup, usually poured into cone-shaped molds to harden (the name piloncillo derives from "pylon"). What you get is a sugar rife with impurities that puts plain old brown sugar to shame. Modern brown sugar is just purified white sugar with some molasses mixed in. This is the real deal.

The flavors of piloncillo vary a bit by manufacturer, but you can expect deep rum-like notes, as well as smoky, earthy elements. There's something like caramel there, edging on the right side of scorched. And a pleasing acidic twang to the finish to balance it out. It's sweet, but less so than refined sugar, and complex enough to eat as candy on its own.

Piloncillo can be used as a sweetener, a spice, or both. A little bit can make drastic changes in sweets, opening whole new dimensions of flavor with just a couple tablespoon. Use it in place of some of the white sugar in cookies, pudding, and ice cream for a smoky compliment to homey desserts. Or add it to caramel for a different level of burnished flavor—raw and caramelized sugar make for interesting thematic and flavor combinations in any number of desserts.

A savory use for piloncillo. Small amounts add richness and complexity to this red chile sauce with braised chicken.

I love piloncillo in dessert sauces, especially those enriched with rum or tequila. Its earthy flavor makes it a clear partner for fruit in macerations and fruit desserts like cobbler and pie (especially blueberry). But don't neglect savory applications: Piloncillo is a natural partner for meat, beans, and dried chiles. I love it in chile sauces for enchiladas and chilaquiles, as well as chili and simple pots of beans. It's a sublime rub ingredient for grilled chicken or pork, and, while I'm reluctant to encourage the continued pairing of bacon and sugar, this is the sugar to use with your belly.

Piloncillo is easy to find in Latin American markets, sometimes under the name panela. Less easy is harvesting the sugar from the cone. For small, precise amounts, grating with a microplane or fine grater is best. If you want to use a larger amount, just eyeball it and whack a hunk off with a heavy knife (you can always weigh it afterward). Some piloncillo cones are too hard even for a cleaver to slice; try nuking yours for ten seconds in the microwave to soften it up.

Sugar's an essential part of nearly everything we cook. After all, it's part of what makes a seared steak or a bowl of French onion soup so good. So I see nothing wrong with the judicious application of a little extra sugar no more than I do a pinch of coriander. And there's no better way to make the flavor of sugar stand out than with this stuff.