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Is panela good for queso?

Panela, also known as piloncillo, is an unrefined cane sugar that is commonly used in Latin American cuisine. It has a rich caramel flavor and can be an excellent alternative to traditional white sugar in many recipes, including queso. But is panela actually a good option for making queso? In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of using panela in queso to help you decide if it’s right for your recipe.

What is panela?

Panela is an unrefined cane sugar that originates from Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and other Latin American countries. It’s made by boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice into a thick syrup which is then poured into molds and left to harden into bars or blocks.

Unlike highly processed white sugar, panela retains more of the original cane juice along with its nutrients and minerals. It has a sandy, grainy texture and a rich, deep flavor reminiscent of brown sugar or molasses. Panela can range in color from golden to dark brown depending on how much it’s been concentrated and caramelized.

Benefits of using panela

Here are some of the main benefits that panela offers over regular white sugar:

More nutrients

Since panela is less processed than white sugar, it retains more nutrients from the original sugarcane juice. Panela contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. It also has antioxidants which may help neutralize free radicals and reduce inflammation in the body.

Lower glycemic index

The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels. Panela has a lower GI of 25 compared to 65 for white sugar. This means panela is absorbed more slowly, causing a slower rise in blood glucose. This gives panela an advantage for people with diabetes or blood sugar concerns.

Deeper, more complex flavor

Panela has a rich, molasses-like flavor that’s much more complex than regular white sugar. Just a small amount can provide a nice caramel taste and aroma to foods and drinks. This deeper flavor profile makes panela popular for sweetening coffee, tea, desserts, and more in Latin America.

Sustainable production

Panela production is considered more sustainable than white sugar. It uses less water in processing and the waste can be used as fertilizer or animal feed. Panela mills are also often smaller, family-run operations supporting local economies. So panela is an eco-friendly sugar alternative.

Is panela suitable for queso?

Now let’s look at how these properties of panela apply specifically when making queso. Here are some pros and cons to consider:


Enhanced flavor – The rich, molasses-like taste of panela can provide a nice depth of flavor to queso. Just a bit can create a subtle caramel sweetness.

Lower glycemic impact – Since panela doesn’t spike blood sugar as much as white sugar, it may be a better choice for queso dips eaten in large amounts.

Nutrients retained – The vitamins and minerals in panela can provide a small nutritional benefit compared to white sugar.

Eco-friendly – Using panela aligns with sustainability values since it’s less processed and supports small producers.


Grainy texture – The coarser, sandy texture of panela may not fully dissolve and could create grittiness in smooth queso dips.

Overpowering flavor – If too much is used, panela’s strong molasses taste could overwhelm more delicate quesos.

Moisture retention – Panela is more hygroscopic than white sugar, meaning it retains more moisture. This could alter queso texture.

Less precision – It can be trickier to precisely control sweetness with the irregular granule sizes of panela.

Tips for using panela in queso

If you want to give panela a try in your queso recipe, here are some tips:

– Start with a small amount of panela like 1-2 tablespoons per pound of cheese. You can increase to taste.

– Look for smoother, finely granulated panela which will dissolve better than large grains.

– Mix the panela with any liquids first to help it fully incorporate.

– Add panela early in cooking so it has time to caramelize and meld flavors.

– Consider combining panela with white sugar to balance the intense molasses flavor.

– Store queso with panela refrigerated since the moisture retention may cause faster spoilage.

– Adjust any other liquids in the recipe to account for the moisture in the panela.

What types of queso work best with panela?

The strong caramel flavor of panela pairs best with bolder, more assertive quesos that can stand up to its taste. More delicate quesos risk being overpowered. Here are some of the best styles to use with panela:

– Queso fresco – The supple, mild fresh cheese takes well to subtle sweetness.

– Aged queso Oaxaca – The salty, nutty hard cheese balances panela’s richness.

– Queso para freir – The firm, salty texture is a perfect canvas for caramelized panela.

– Queso blanco – The mild flavor harmonizes with hints of molasses sweetness.

– Queso dip – The intense, spicy cheese blends well with panela’s punch of flavor.

– Cotija – Dry, firm cotija cheese retains texture even with the moisture from panela.

However, quesos like fresh requeson, delicate queso brie, and mild queso Chihuahua are likely too light to stand up to panela. Stick to white sugar for these.

Best panela queso recipes

To give you an idea of how to use panela in queso recipes, here are a few popular options:

Caramelized Panela Queso Dip

– 1 pound queso fresco, crumbled
– 1/4 cup panela
– 1/4 cup cream
– 1 jalapeño, chopped
– Lime juice
– Tortilla chips for serving

– Melt the panela in a skillet over medium heat until golden brown and fragrant.
– Add the crumbled queso fresco and heavy cream. Stir until thoroughly combined and warmed through.
– Remove from heat and stir in the chopped jalapeño and a squeeze of lime juice to taste.
– Transfer to a serving dish and serve warm with tortilla chips.

Oaxacan Panela Quesadillas

– 1 pound queso Oaxaca, shredded
– 1 tablespoon panela
– 8 small corn tortillas
– 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

– Evenly sprinkle the shredded Oaxaca cheese and panela over 4 of the tortillas. Top with the remaining tortillas.
– Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the quesadillas for 2-3 minutes per side until the cheese is melted and tortillas crisp.
– Slice into wedges and serve immediately.

Panela Queso Blanco Cheesecake

Crust Ingredients:
– 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
– 1/4 cup panela
– 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted

Cheesecake Ingredients:
– 2 (8 oz) packages queso blanco, softened
– 1 cup panela
– 2 eggs
– 1 tbsp lime zest
– 1/4 cup lime juice
– 1 tsp vanilla extract

– Make the crust by mixing together the graham crumbs, panela, and melted butter. Press firmly into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
– For the cheesecake, beat together the queso blanco, panela, eggs, lime zest and juice, and vanilla extract until smooth and creamy.
– Pour the cheesecake batter over the crust. Bake at 325°F for 45-60 minutes until just set.
– Cool completely before removing from the pan. Chill for at least 2 hours before slicing.


Panela can be an interesting alternative sweetener to use in queso recipes thanks to its deep molasses-like flavor and caramel notes. Just a small amount of panela provides richness without overpowering more subtle cheeses. It works best with bolder flavored quesos that can handle its intensity. Panela’s moisture and sandy texture require some special handling but create a pleasant contrast in drier cheeses like cotija. With the right recipe, panela can bring a unique sweetness and complexity to queso. Give it a try in your next Mexican dish!