There is not a fruit stand, grocery store, public market or supermarket in Latin America that does not offer some form of the brown sugar we call Panela. It comes in various shapes from square to round, and shades of brown from Auburn to Tawny, but they are all the same product; the different shapes usually carry an specific name but it varies from one country to another. The name Panela usually refers to a rectangular prism, commonly called a Brick or Block.
The Panela is produced by pressing the juice out of sugar cane at small sugar mills called Trapiches, the machinery at these mills is very simple and sometimes is moved by water from a nearby source. The juice from the cane is filtered and boiled in a row of copper or iron pots where it is stirred frequently and decanted from the first pot to the last, becoming thicker in texture and lighter in color in the process. Copper pots produce a lighter colored and better crystallized product than iron pots, which produce darker Panela, however copper pots are more expensive and some trapiche do not use them. The process for making Panela has not changed much in centuries here you can see a very good video on the process, MAKING PANELA, this is from a Trapiche in Colombia but it is similar all over Latin America.
I grew up in a sugar cane growing town in Venezuela, named El Tocuyo; as a kid I roamed around the cane fields and occasionally cut some ripe sugar cane to peel and suck the juice out of it. To this day my favorite drink is freshly pressed sugar cane juice, called Guarapo, with a fresh lime squeezed into it, every time I see someone selling it I always buy, I can't resist it I am addicted to the stuff. During my childhood my family occasionally visited some of the local trapiches and my mother always brought spices and grated white cheese to have a Melcocha made, which is like a fudge made with the syrup from the last pot, the spices and cheese are added to form a paste which is kneaded until it becomes very elastic and almost solid then is shaped like a cylinder and is wrapped in dry plantain leaves.
I love cooking with panela, it produces a pretty caramel color in foods and the resulting flavor is never sickly sweet. Panela when added to any mixture turns it syrupy very quickly unlike sugar. Panela combines very well with white meats like pork or poultry and is excellent for making glazes. Panela and Rum are a match made in heaven since both come from sugar cane.
The technical definition of Panela is: unrefined whole cane sugar, typical of Latin America, which is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. In India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a similar product is made which is called jaggery. The main producer of panela is Colombia (about 1.4 million tons/year), where panela production is one of the most important economic activities, with the highest index of panela consumption per capita worldwide. Panela is also produced in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panamá, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia. In Colombia, the panela industry is an important source of employment with about 350,000 people working in nearly 20,000 trapiches (panela farms).
Below you will find some simple and delicious recipes with Panela I hope you will give them a try.
ENGLISH NAME: Brown Sugar, actually brown sugar shaped as a small brick
LOCAL NAMES: Panela, rapadura (Brazil), piloncillo (Mexico), Chancaca (Peru), Papelon (Venezuela), Raspadura (Panama)
PRODUCTS: Bricks, cones, half spheres, powder, syrup, nougat, fudge, candy, brittle.
NUTRIENTS: Panela is a form of sugar and as such is highly caloric, however in its defense one must say that unlike white sugar, which only has empty calories, Panela has some additional nutrients such as fiber and vitamins. Panela contains simple sugars (sucrose) but it also contains complex sugars (fructose) that take longer to be processed and delay hunger. So if you have to sweeten a dish, Panela is a healthier choice. I always combine Panela use with some protein to reduce the overall glycemic index of the meal.
PROCESSING: In order to use Panela you will either break it, grate it, crush it (with a rock, my favorite) or scrape it, you can also melt it with a little water.
STORING: Panela keeps well in a cool dry place, it will last for weeks but make sure ants do not reach it, they love the stuff.