Rapadura sugar is an unrefined cane sugar made primarily in Central and Latin America. It is known by various different names, depending on it’s palace of origin, including panela and piloncillo. Often sold in small blocks or truncated cone shapes, rapadura has a stronger flavour than processed sugars, and retains some beneficial plant compounds that would otherwise have been lost during the refining process.
Most cane sugar is made by cooking the cane at high temperatures and putting the resulting pulpy liquid, called massecuite, into a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the sugar crystals. Even most dark sugars, known for their stronger flavour, are made in this way, with some of the molasses being added back in at a later stage.
Rapadura is different because it does not have any of the molasses removed, meaning it keeps all of that delicious caramel molasses flavour, along with the nutrients that naturally occur in sugar cane. Instead of being put in a centrifuge, rapadura is made by crushing sugarcane in a press and boiling it to evaporate the water. It is then poured into moulds and left to cool until it forms solid blocks.
While rapadura is always brown in colour, it does not always have a uniform appearance. There are many different variables in play, including sugarcane variety, the weather, and the quality of the soil, so one batch of rapadura may look very different to another. Lighter brown rapadura is known as ‘blanco’, while darker brown rapadura is known as ‘oscuro’.
In Central and Latin America, rapadura is often dissolved in water to make sweet drinks, including popular Columbian drink aguapanela, which can be served hot or cold, papelón con limón, a Venezuelan drink served at the hottest part of the day, and atole, a hot milky Mexican drink made with cinnamon and sometimes chocolate. It is also used to make chancaca, a sweet dessert sauce popular in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Rapadura can be used as a substitute for brown sugar in any recipe, especially if you want a strong caramel flavour. The higher molasses content of rapadura means that it also contains more moisture, which makes it an excellent choice for moist, chewy cookies.
Is Rapadura sugar healthy?
Because it is an unrefined sugar, rapadura retains more of the natural vitamins and minerals present in the sugar cane than other sugars. Both white sugar and rapadura contain roughly the same number of calories, at around 20 per teaspoon, but rapadura is higher in both antioxidants and several essential vitamins, including Vitamins A, B1, B2, B6 and niacin.
There is also an impressive 11% of your recommended daily intake of iron in every teaspoon of rapadura, based on a 2000 calorie-a-day diet. Iron is an important mineral, used by the body to make the proteins myoglobin and haemoglobin, which are both used to carry oxygen around the body, while haemoglobin is also used to make red blood cells.
Finally, rapadura has a lower glycaemic index (GI) than normal sugar, meaning that your body metabolises it more slowly, causing less of a spike in blood sugar.
But the bottom line is that rapadura is still sugar. Your recommended daily intake of sugar is no more than nine teaspoons a day, which includes both the refined sugars in processed foods and ‘natural’ sugars like rapadura, honey, and even the sugar in fruit.
To feel the benefits of most of the nutrients in rapadura, you would need to eat far more than your recommended daily amount, and the risk of obesity means that it just wouldn’t be worth it. If you take a small amount of sugar as an occasional treat you might want to switch to rapadura for the extra iron and intensity of flavour, but increasing your sugar intake in any way is almost always a bad idea.
What’s A Good Rapadura Substitute?
If you can’t get hold of rapadura sugar, here are a few substitutes you might consider using instead.
Turbinado is another unrefined cane sugar, made by filtering cane juice, rather than evaporating it. Turbinado has the same high molasses content and strong caramel flavour as rapadura, but it does have larger sugar granules, so you might need to break it up in a food processor before use.
Sucanat is even closer to rapadura, this time made by dehydrating cane juice. The taste is almost identical, so these two sugars can be used pretty much interchangeably.
Maple syrup, made from the boiled sap of the maple tree, has a sweet, smoky flavour similar to that of molasses, and may be used as a rapadura substitute. As maple syrup is a wet ingredient, you will need to use less of it. We recommend using ½ to ⅔ cups of maple syrup to every one cup of rapadura in the recipe and reducing the other liquid ingredients by ¼ cups.
If you only have refined sugars available, muscovado or demerara are the best choice. Both these sugars undergo minimal processing, and have the highest content of molasses, making them the closest to rapadura in taste.
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