Tips & Techniques

This Genius Dulce de Leche Recipe Lets You Be the Boss (+ No Exploding Cans!)

September 14, 2016

First, let's get this out of the way: Why make your own dulce de leche? Doesn't it cook for an awfully long time? Are we sure it's worth it?

Yes. Firstly and most pragmatically of all, because dulce de leche isn't always in your supermarket when you need it. When I set out to make April Bloomfield's Banoffee Pie, for example, all I could find was a squeeze bottle in the ice cream section. It had 12 ingredients and the consistency of acrylic paint. Why would I bother making a nice pie with an Achilles' heel like that?

But even if you can buy finer quality dulce de leche, or its goat-milky sister cajeta, making your own can be hands-off, less expensive, and seriously easy, with as little as one ingredient and a dish or two to wash—and, maybe best of all, you get to take back control.

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There are loads of ways to DIY, with varying positions on the effort-to-reward spectrum—from microwaving (fast, not so good) to slowly stirring cow's or goat's milk and sugar over a low flame for as long as you can stand (sloooow, gooood). The method that most people talk about—perhaps out of a macabre fascination with the idea of exploding cans of hot caramel—is to submerge a can of sweetened condensed milk in boiling water for about three hours.

But no matter how risk-averse you are, or your feelings on bursting cans or BPA, one of the worst parts about cooking in the can (whether it's in a pot of boiling water, a pressure cooker, or a crock pot) is that the can acts as a black box. You can't interact with what's inside until it's completely done. Because, of course, "If you attempt to open a hot, or even warm can, an extremely hot jet of [dulce] may explode out and result in severe burns."

Which is why David Lebovitz's method ditches the can immediately. He pours sweetened condensed milk into a pie plate, covers it with foil, plunks it into a bigger pan of hot water, and then roasts it in the oven at 425° F for about an hour. In essence, he's recreating the physical environment of the can, in a more accessible form. He's also the first person I've seen to not only add salt, but to suggest other riffs like a vanilla bean at the beginning, or a tablespoon of sherry at the end. Sherry. I like this.

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Top Comment:
“My mother made dulce de leche every week or so for 30+ years. She opened a can of condensed milk, put it in a pan of water over low heat until it was the color she wanted it to be. She checked the level of water every now & then & added more if necessary. What I like about David's method is you would not have to check the water level. Either way, love the results!”

This is the only path to dulce de leche that lets you easily get in to taste and tweak, without also requiring regular or constant stirring—the best of all worlds, the happiest medium for control freaks and tinkerers who nonetheless don't want to be tied for hours to a pot.

Want it free-flowing, to drizzle over ice cream and cakes? Pull it from the oven early. Or are you looking for something darker and fudgier, to spread on cookies? (Or toast, which our photographer James Ransom survived on when he lived in Argentina? He would want you to know that the bread was different than what's pictured above—more like soft French bread. Sorry, James!) You can do that, too.

You can keep it traditional and pure, or, whenever you feel like it, you can add dried chile or cocoa or miso or marzipan or tomato! Then use your creation in a million ways, to glaze scones or banana breads or anchor spicy-sweet barbecue sauces or fish sauce-y dressings.

Where else will you take it?

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to our Books Editor & Stylist Ali Slagle for this one, and to James Ransom, who acted as dulce de leche lifestyle consultant.

Photos by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mj.landry
  • Ann
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


mj.landry December 10, 2016
I have been cooking this for 2 hours now in a covered pie plate in a water bath in my oven which is a calibrated Wolf Range. So far nothing. I usually do the can sweetened condensed milk in water for 3 hours and that always works. I'm assuming that this will indeed turn into Dulce de Leche but so far for me the 1 hour at 425 is not working at all.
SUSAN M. September 19, 2016
My mother made dulce de leche every week or so for 30+ years.
She opened a can of condensed milk, put it in a pan of water over low heat
until it was the color she wanted it to be. She checked the level of water every
now & then & added more if necessary. What I like about David's method is you
would not have to check the water level. Either way, love the results!
Ann September 19, 2016
Nicole.......THAT sounds Genius. Would you share the specifics?
Lin September 18, 2016
Nicole, do you use SCM in the canning jars in your crockpot? I would love to know how to make the caramel from just milk without the added sugar as I need to limit my sugar intake.
Kenn September 18, 2016
The first time I ever made dulce de leche I used this technique. That was at least a decade ago, and I found the recipe (albeit sans salt) printed right there on the can of sweetened condensed milk. Genius indeed.
Lawyerjen September 18, 2016
I made some dulce de leche this way earlier this week, and it was excellent. I added some fleur de sel and vanilla bean paste at the end. Yum!
Cristina September 18, 2016
Adding a taste of alcohol to dulce de leche (aka cajeta) has always been one of the two ways commercial cajeta is made in Mexico: quemada ('burned'--the plain kind) or envinada (with white wine). Both are available in any store here that sells groceries, from the smallest mom-n-pop on the corner to the biggest of the big box stores.
Connie September 18, 2016
I do make traditional Cajeta and Dulce de Leche from fresh milk but never use any added sweetener or packaged ingredients. The long slow cooking and constant stirring for the real stuff brings out the natural milk sugars - no canned milk needed. I don't understand why you would start with SCM and cook it some more.
Liliana B. September 18, 2016
Connie- this makes so much sense to me, making it from fresh milk, organic for sure. Does it just take longer than we SCM is used? Thanks!
Robin M. September 18, 2016
can you share your technique please? I have seen recipes but would love to hear your method. Thanks
Connie September 18, 2016
I don't know how long it lasts - we've always eaten it before it got too old, lol. I just make it the old fashioned way and simmer milk, stirring constantly so it doesn't stick to the bottom, until it completely boils down into thick caramely goodness. It takes a bit of nerve to let it cook down so much. Last time I made it I added cardamom pods as I was cooking it down. I always use raw milk but I suppose that it would work fine with pasteurized and homogenized milk.
Giles F. September 15, 2016
I can't believe David didn't suggest using it to make the brownies in his 'The Sweet Life in Paris' as they are awesome!!!
Fresh T. September 14, 2016
This idea came from Flo Braker - also a San Franciscan in Baking For All Occasions. I think David counts her as an influencer as well. I've made this many times and loved it.
Nicole September 14, 2016
Love the idea of roasting it, I'll have to give that a try! I've done mine in sterilized canning jars, in my crockpot. It cooks and seals at the same time so they make great gifts! I just watch the color and take them out when they look the right shade of caramel for me.