Picarones - are a rare Peruvian treat that happens to be vegan! Imagine sinking your teeth into these light, airy rings of sweet potato dough, fried to golden brown perfection. Drizzle on some aromatic chamomile apple syrup, scented with fresh cinnamon and orange zest, and you have yourself a picarones recipe that will make you book a one way ticket to Cuzco right quick!
My family and I have spent time in Peru, living amongst the Shipibo people in the jungle near Pucallpa. And aside from some of Peru’s staple beverages like emoliente and chicha morada, gosh darn it’s a sorta terrible country to try to survive on a plant-based diet.
I mean it’s rare that folks in Peru even eat beans, so the vegan option is often white rice, with plantains or French fries cooked in oil that was just used to fry a million chickens in! The one saving grace is that in nearly every town, you will find vendors on street corners serving hot, delicious picarones, and often they are made without eggs, lard or dairy.
I am somewhat of a “donut chef” who has been featured in the New York Times and on TV for pastries like my apple cider donuts, vanilla bourbon creme brûlée donuts, apple fritters and Malaysian banana donuts. So, I knew I’d need to master the art of Peru’s street food donuts, and share the secrets with you and the rest of this wacky world.
Every step of this recipe, from kneading the dough to making the syrup, is laid out clearly and simply. You'll understand exactly what to look for at each stage, ensuring your picarones turn out light, airy, perfectly crisp on the outside, and never gross and greasy! And the chamomile apple syrup? It's a game-changer. Not too sweet, with subtle floral notes and a hint of citrus, it takes your picarones from delicious to unforgettable.
So, grab your apron, and let's make magic in the kitchen!
🥰 Why you will adore this recipe
✊ Vegan AF: Just like all of the vegan donut recipes I share, this Traditional Latin American recipe is 100% plant-based. But don’t freak out. In most of Peru, this is how these babies are traditionally made!
🍠 Sweet Potato Magic: The use of mashed sweet potato in this recipe isn't just for show. The best picarones have a salty and mildly sweet dough, which happens naturally with your main man, the yam. The secret sorcery of sweet potatoes also helps picarones have a better shelf life than regular donuts.
🍎 Chamomile Apple Syrup: Stop being the most boring person in the universe, eating plain, uninteresting, stale fried dough out of a cowboy hat you found in the back of your dad’s Ford Focus!The chamomile apple syrup in my recipe elevates picarones to their rightful throne as king donut of the galaxy.
🥸 Food Proof: Making picarones with active dry yeast, or any other yeast mixture makes them much more complicated to get right. This recipe is made with baking powder instead, making it a lot easier for beginner bakers to easily achieve masterful results.
✅ Tested and Approved Worldwide. Like all the vegan recipes on my blog, this one has been tried and loved by a team of recipe testers across the globe.
🍠 Notable ingredients and substitutions
In Peru, sweet potatoes, or 'camote', are a staple ingredient. I've seen more colorful sweet potatoes in Peru than anywhere I have been in the world, some too pretty to eat! Rich in vitamins A and C, they add natural sweetness and a velvety texture to the picarones, and they make an amazing noodle broth for mee rebus, and can be eaten raw in a salad like rujak serut. Butternut squash or kabocha squash can also be used. But, if you are a little lazy, or are like the world's most important business person or whatever, and your time is more valuable than gold, you can skip peeling and steaming sweet potatoes and substitute canned pumpkin purée.
Cinnamon adds a warm, spicy vibe to the picarones, complementing the sweetness of the sweet potato. Having a cinnamon you love in your arsenal not only makes sweets like banh flan much better, but is great in savory recipes like Turkish mercimek kofte and is a key spice used to make Lebanese Baharat. If you are a cinnamon hater, picarones can also be nice with a little nutmeg instead.
Anise seeds, which are optional in this recipe, add a subtle licorice flavor, adding depth to the dough. If anise isn't your thing or it's not available, you can skip it or use fennel seeds for a similar flavor profile.
Chamomile adds a gentle, floral flavor, creating a soothing and aromatic quality to the syrup. If chamomile isn't your cup of tea (see what I did there?), you can also use stronger teas such as Earl Grey, or Ceylon tea (what you use to make Thai iced tea) for a different flavor.
Cloves aren’t just amazing in Indian dishes like vegetable biryani and Sundanese bandrek. This whole spice brings a pungent, sweet, and musky aroma to the syrup. If you don't have cloves, allspice berries can be a good substitute, offering a similar warm, spicy flavor.
Notice something sorta crazy for a donut recipe? There is no sweetener in the dough itself! It gets its sweetness from the sweet potato, and most of the sugar is added on the outside, either with syrup, or by tossing these in powdered sugar. While chancaca (also sometimes called piloncillo, rapadura, and papelón), a molded raw sugar is typically used for making syrup for picarones, brown sugar, coconut sugar, or palm sugar (my go-to sweetener for Indonsesian sweets like bubur sumsum, klepon, and kuih dadar) work great too and are easier to find outside of Peru.
Sticker shock: Vanilla has become the second-most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) due to its labor-intensive cultivation process. The two insects known to pollinate vanilla orchids have been dying due to climate change. Now, vanilla is mostly hand-pollinated by human laborers, which has driven the price of an already costly ingredient through the gosh-darned roof. Thank goodness this recipe doesn’t call for a boatload of it, but if you need, you can leave it out or swap it for another extract of your choosing.
*See the recipe card at the bottom of the page for exact quantities, nutritional info, and detailed cooking directions.
Quinoa Flour Variation: In the Andean regions of Peru, quinoa is a staple grain known for its nutritional benefits and gluten-free properties. For a traditional Andean twist, you can replace the all-purpose flour with quinoa flour. This substitution not only makes the picarones gluten-free but also adds a nutty flavor and a boost of protein. The texture will be different, more like a mochi donut.
Lucuma Maca Picarones: Lucuma, a fruit native to the Andean valleys, is often referred to as "Gold of the Incas." Its sweet, maple-mesquite-like flavor makes it a popular ingredient in Peruvian desserts. Simply add a spoonful of lucuma powder and maca and instantly make these more nutritious and flavorful. You can slip a little orange juice into the syrup in place of some of the water, which complements the flavors of these superfoods nicely!
📖 How to nail this picarones recipe
Pull these off like a proper picaronera, or picaronero on your first time by following these step-by-step instructions with helpful tips. Or you can follow along with the easy-to-print recipe card towards the bottom of this page.
Steam, boil or bake peeled sweet potatoes until fork tender.
It Was A Graveyard Smash:
Dough Prep School:
Mix the mashed sweet potato, all-purpose flour, baking powder, ground cinnamon, cardamom, and anise seeds (if using) in a sizable bowl. Stir the mixture until it's thoroughly combined, forming a very soft, sticky dough.
All You Knead is Dough:
Next, knead the dough for a few minutes on a surface dusted with flour or in a stand mixer. Continue until the dough is uniformly smooth. Wet hands will make it easier to kneed without the dough sticking to you.
Pour oil into a deep pot with a thick bottom and heat it to 350°F (175°C). If you're without a frying thermometer, check if the oil is ready by dropping a tiny bit of dough into it; it should bubble and float up.
✅ Trust me on this one, if you are going to make donuts from time to time, you should cop one of those thermometers. Next project you are gonna want to use it on is my vegan bomboloni!
Divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Form each potion of dough into a ring shape, or any shape you prefer for your picarones. This can be done either by rolling and stretching the dough by hand on a floured work surface into elongated ropes and connecting the ends, or by using a donut cutter to form perfect rings. Picarones usually have a larger hole in the middle than typical American donuts.
Fry each picarone in the hot oil for about 2-3 minutes per side, until they turn a lovely golden brown and achieve a crispy texture. Flip them using a slotted spoon, or a long wooden stick, as you will often see picaroneros use in Peru. Try not to overcrowd your pot with too many at a time, which can affect even and thorough cooking, and will make flipping them trickier.
Once done, transfer them onto a wire rack set over a baking pan to drain off excess oil. You can savor them plain, sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, or pair them with the syrup detailed below.
Sip Sip Sipping on Some Sysurp:
Instead of plain ol' chancaca syrup, let's make things fun! To prepare the chamomile apple syrup, pour warm water into a small pot and bring it to a boil. Add in the chamomile tea bags, cinnamon stick, cloves, grated orange peel, diced apple, brown sugar, and vanilla extract. Let this simmer briefly until the sugar dissolves and the apples soften. After simmering, take the saucepan off the heat and remove the chamomile tea bags from the sweet syrup.
Serve Them Up Pretty:
Enjoy the freshly made doughnuts by drizzling them with the warm syrup, or serving them with a dollop of vegan whipped cream and powdered sugar.
- Consistent Dough Thickness: When rolling out your picarone dough, aim for as uniform a thickness as possible with such soft dough. This ensures both even cooking and an attractive finished product. A consistent thickness across all picarones is key to achieving that perfect texture - crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.
- Less Mess: Don't use a frying pan for frying picarones! Instead, opt for a Dutch oven or a large pot with thick walls to keep oil spills and splatters from making a mess of your stove. Another option is to use a countertop deep fryer if you have one.
- Oil Temperature Management: Maintaining a steady oil temperature is crucial. If the oil is too hot, the picarones will brown too quickly on the outside while remaining doughy inside. Too cool, and they'll absorb excess oil, becoming greasy. A kitchen thermometer is a great investment for deep frying, but if you don’t have one, keep an eye on how the dough reacts in the oil and adjust your heat accordingly.
- Hate Frying Stuff? Air donuts to the rescue! To cook Picarones in an air fryer, preheat the air fryer to 350°F (175°C). Lightly spray the picarones with cooking spray oil to ensure even browning. Place them in the air fryer basket in a single layer, making sure they don't touch, and cook for about 8-10 minutes, flipping them halfway through until they're golden brown and crispy. Keep an eye on them to prevent overcooking.
- Draining Technique: After frying, place the picarones on a wire rack over a baking sheet instead of directly on paper towels. This allows air to circulate around the entire picarone, preventing the bottoms from becoming soggy and maintaining their delightful crispiness.
🤷♀️ Recipe FAQs
Store the picarones at room temperature in an airtight container for up to two days. For the syrup, refrigerate in a sealed container, and it should last up to a week. If you can, briefly warm them before serving leftover picarones by heating them for a few minutes in an oven or toaster oven set to 350°F (175°C). Warm the leftover syrup in a saucepan over medium heat to drizzle over the picarones.
Yes, you can make a gluten-free Peruvian donut by substituting the all-purpose flour with either quinoa flour, or an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend.
After frying, you're gonna be left with excess oil that isn't strongly flavored from your cooking.
Some great things to fry later in the same oil are Tempeh Mendoan, Bakwan Sayur, Vegan Fried Chicken, Thai Spring Rolls, or Indian Onion Bhaji.
To store the leftover oil, first let it cool and then strain it with a fine mesh strainer to remove any food particles. Transfer it to an airtight container and store it in a cool, dark place. It's best to use the stored oil within a few weeks. Remember that repeatedly reusing oil can lead to oxidization of the oil and that’s not healthy to consume.
✌️My faves to serve with this picarones recipe:
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Picarones with chamomile apple syrup
- Large bowl
- Slotted spoon or tongs
- Steam, boil or bake peeled sweet potatoes until fork tender. (If you are going to use canned pumpkin puree, you can skip the first two steps)
- If you boil the sweet potatoes, drain them in a colander. Mash them either with a potato masher or for a smoother consistency, puree them in a food processor or blender.
- In a large bowl, combine sweet potato purée, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, ground cinnamon, cardamon, and optional anise seeds. Mix everything together until well combined and a soft dough forms.
- Knead the dough for a few minutes on a floured surface or in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment until it becomes smooth.
- Heat oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot to 350°F (175°C). If you don’t have a frying thermometer, test the oil's readiness by dropping in a small piece of dough; it should sizzle and rise to the surface.
- Shape the dough into rings or your preferred shape for the picarones. You can do this by rolling the dough into long ropes and then joining the ends, or by using a donut cutter. Keep in mind that picarones typically have a larger hole in the center than standard American-style donuts.
- Fry the picarones in the hot oil for 2-3 minutes on each side until they are golden brown and crispy. Once fried, remove the picarones from the oil and let them drain on a wire rack suspended over a baking pan. You can eat them plain like this, dusted with cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar, or serve them with syrup.
- To make the chamomile apple syrup add water to a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, add chamomile tea bags, cinnamon stick, cloves, zested orange rind, apple, brown sugar, and vanilla. Let it simmer for a few minutes until the sugar dissolves and the apple pieces are tender.
- Remove from the heat and remove the chamomile tea bags from the pot.
- Serve the warm picarones with the chamomile apple syrup drizzled over them.