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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Makes 1 cup
1 quart whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, split
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Got any tricks for making dulce de leche? And what's your favorite way to use it? Tell us in the comments!