Caramel

All About Dulce de Leche -- And How to Make It

April  2, 2014

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Learn how to make addictive, spreadable dulce de leche with only milk, sugar, and time.

How to Make Homemade Dulce de Leche on Food52

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Dulce de leche is a popular South American caramel sauce composed of only two ingredients: milk and sugar. In fact, the name literally translates to "milk jam" (side note: it is pronounced as "dul-say," as opposed to "dul-che" -- you'll gain some cool points for this). According to Alton Brown, dulce de leche most likely evolved as a way to preserve milk in the pre-refrigerator era. Though its flavor is complex and layered, dulce de leche is deceptively simple to make. 

So how does combining milk, sugar, and heat turn into something as lucious and spoonable as dulce de leche? The answer lies in science -- more specifically, chemistry. As all you lactose-intolerant folk out there know, milk has plenty of lactose. Lactose is a sugar, but is not as sweet as sucrose or glucose (which are found in typical table sugar, fruits, and sugared fruits). As dulce de leche is essentially caramelized milk, it is a more complex, less saccharine caramel than its more traditional cousin.

More: Caught the caramel bug? Try caramelizing white chocolate -- you'll thank us later.

How to Make Dulce de Leche on Food52

Some of you have probably heard of a certain controversial method for making dulce de leche. It begins with a can of condensed milk, submerged in a pot of boiling water for several hours. When prompted with a can opener, it will open up to reveal thick, golden dulce de leche. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly, which is all well and good -- it's the cocoon we have a problem with. 

More: We still love you, condensed milk! Especially when you're in this French Toast Crunch.

It's not that there's anything wrong with using canned goods -- but why would you used canned condensed milk as a base when you could make dulce de leche so easily, from scratch? Plus, if you go the homemade route, you avoid any angst over exploding cans; you have complete control over the caramelization process; and you can actually see the magic in action. Sometimes mystery isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Without further ado, here's how to make it -- from scratch:

First, combine your ingredients. For about a cup of finished product, you'll need to start with a quart of whole milk. Feel free to use coconut milk for a vegan variation, or goat's milk for some tang (though now you're technically making cajeta).

Pour it into a medium-sized saucepan, then add roughly 1 cup of sugar. This is a question of personal preference; if you like your caramel on the sweeter side, up it by 1/4 cup. If not, reduce it down to 3/4 cup. Add in 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Add in one split vanilla bean if you wish, because when has a caramel ever been worse off with the addition of vanilla? 

How to Make Homemade Dulce de Leche on Food52

Stir the mixture over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Take the mixture off the heat, then stir in 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. This nifty trick comes from Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen. The baking soda is optional, but helps prevent the milk proteins from coagulating, ensuring a smoother end result. Whisk everything until combined (the mixture will fizz if you're using goat's milk, which is acidic), then place it back over medium heat. You want the milk to be edged in brisk bubbles, but you don't want the whole thing to boil over.

Now comes the hardest part: the waiting. Let the milk mixture boil for approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. The color will begin to sneak from white to tan after an hour or so, and then will darken rapidly. At this stage, keep a wary eye -- the time for eating is nigh. As the mixture darkens it will become thicker, and also nuttier. 

How to Make Homemade Dulce de Leche on Food52

After your dulce de leche reaches your desired tone of caramel color, take it off the heat and let it cool slightly. If you want a silky smooth texture, or have some extra time on your hands, strain the thickened milk jam through a mesh colander. However, if you're lazy like us, or just eager to transfer the caramel into your mouth as quickly as possible, don't bother. The flavor will be just as wonderful.

How to Make Homemade Dulce de Leche on Food52

Transfer to a a glass jar with an airtight seal. Dulce de leche will keep for up to 4 weeks, but you might have to resort to hoarding and hiding to make it last that long. When it comes to serving options, the sky's the limit. Sandwich dulce de leche between buttery shortbread for an approximation of alfajores. Nuke it for a few seconds in the microwave, then drizze it on top of ice cream. If you're having an especially trying morning, spread some on buttered toast and top with flaky sea salt. However, dulce de leche is perhaps at its best eaten by the spoon out of the container, fridge door open, at an unnamed hour of the night. 

Note: If you're feeling up to an experiment, our friends at Serious Eats have tried making dulce de leche in an oven, double boiler, and even a microwave. 

Homemade Dulce de Leche

Makes 1 cup

1 quart whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, split
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got any tricks for making dulce de leche? And what's your favorite way to use it? Tell us in the comments!

12 Comments

Jenni April 16, 2017
I'm wondering if it can be made in a slow cooker with the lid off, my gas cooker, even on the lowest heat, will have the milk boiling over in no time! I find that making things like semolina pudding or stove-top rice pudding burns the milk, even with a diffuser, it is an absolute nuisance!
 
Oscar T. April 9, 2017
I cook mine in the can at 85 degrees Celsius for exactly 12 hours using a home sous vide device. The outcome is exceptional, but if you leave the can for 14 days before opening it, it's clear that it has started to crystallise, as in small sugar crystals form which is slightly unpleasant compared to the initially silky smooth deliciousness. Any idea why this is happening and how one might prevent it?
 
Smaug January 6, 2016
Worked quite well, though it took me quite a bit longer (I actually interrupted the process overnight)- I probably could have had the heat higher- On the other hand, I had no problem with graininess- I also tried to keep stirring to a minimum. <br /> I haven't tried it, but I've seen recipes for Dolce de Leite from condensed milk that called for emptying it into a pie plate and baking that in a water bath.
 
derekcambodia October 14, 2014
Put can of condensed milk in a water bath and cook at low temp in oven .<br />Be careful and let cool before attempting to open
 
canela-peluchis April 20, 2014
Can I use Stevia in place of regular sugar?
 
Simone H. April 5, 2014
How much time it take if I make it in the pressure cooker and can I use low fat milk? Thanks
 
Diana B. April 5, 2014
If you're going to cook it that long, I'd add the vanilla bean late in the process. The flavor's rather delicate and after 1½ - 2 hours, there wouldn't be that much flavor left.
 
sygyzy April 3, 2014
Try making it in a pressure cooker. Much faster and more consistent.
 
jaybels April 2, 2014
Nice reference to Alton Brown! And vitorhugo, I dont see you working for the best food blog in the nation. Take it easy.
 
Diana B. April 5, 2014
I would imagine someone from victorhugo's culture has more experience with dulce de leche than most, but even if he doesn't, we all have something yet to learn, even the writers of excellent food blogs. And he's quite right about the vanilla bean.
 
Vitor H. April 2, 2014
Nice! Dulce de leche (or doce de leite in my language, Portuguese).<br /><br />But… I can see, the texture is a bit crystallized (and in the saucepan sides). It seems too much heat and stirring. The colour could be a little more darker (of course, exist lighter kinds doces), so more caramel flavour! :D<br /><br />For my tries, vanilla is a great addition. But the long cooking time the flavour vanishes really fast, so my tip is add it later. So we get more taste after.
 
Author Comment
Catherine L. April 2, 2014
These are great tips! You're right, it was a bit crystalized, though we didn't strain it at the end (and certainly didn't mind one bit while eating it). We'll take any excuse to stir less!