Plus, how is it different from caramel?

By Corey Williams
February 01, 2021
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Dulce de leche is as rich, sweet, and decadent as it gets. But what exactly is the amber-colored confection — and how do you make it at home? Here's what you need to know: 

What Is Dulce de Leche? 

A Spoon with Milk Caramel Spread better nown as Dulce de Leche
Credit: jopstock/Getty Images

Dulche de leche, which literally means "candy made from milk," is a thick and sugary caramel-like sauce that's made by slowly heating sweet milk. The Latin American confection is found in desserts like cakes, cookies, and flan. It's also often used as an ice cream topping or spread for toast or crepes.

Dulce de Leche vs. Caramel

Salted Caramel Sauce
Credit: Mixit

Caramel sauce and dulce de leche look and taste extremely similar. In fact, they can be interchangeable in certain recipes. But they're not quite the same thing — here's how to tell the difference: 

  • Caramel is made by caramelizing granulated sugar over very high heat until it becomes a deep amber color and gives off a rich scent. When it’s mixed with creamy ingredients like half-and-half or heavy cream, it becomes caramel sauce (an ingredient you probably have some experience with).
  • Dulce de leche, meanwhile, is made by heating sweet milk until it becomes a thick, rich sauce. It’s often made in home kitchens using sweetened condensed milk. Unlike caramel, which is heated quickly at high heat, dulce de leche is heated low and slow.

Dulce de Leche History

Pancake with caramel and chocolate shavings
Credit: Maica/Getty Images

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of dulce de leche, but there are a few theories. According to one popular legend, Napoleon's cook accidentally created it in 1804 by heating milk and sugar for too long. Another story alleges that it was actually a maid of Argentinian politician Juan Manuel de Rosas who mistakenly invented the sweet treat. 

Some people believe that dulce de leche was actually born in Indonesia before making its way to the Philippines. According to this theory, after the Spanish conquered the Philippines, they brought the recipe to the Americas.

How to Make Dulce de Leche

Chef John's Dulce de Leche
Credit: Elizabeth

It couldn't be easier to make dulce de leche at home — you will need to break out your tool box, though. Just follow these easy steps:

  1.  Gather your supplies. You’ll need a closed can of sweetened condensed milk, a nail, a hammer, a saucepan, and water. 
  2. Using the hammer and the nail, make two holes in the lid of the can. Place the upright can in the saucepan. Pour in enough water to reach up the sides of the can, but don’t pour enough to completely submerge the can. Bring the water to a boil. Reduce heat to low. 
  3. Allow the water to simmer for three to four hours. Add more water as it boils down. 
  4. When the sweetened condensed milk has thickened and is a dark amber color, remove the lid, pour it into a bowl, and whisk away any lumps. 

Get the complete recipe: How to Make Dulce de Leche

Recipes with Dulce de Leche

Put your homemade dulce de leche to good use with one of these decadent recipes: 

Dulce De Leche Bars

Dulce de Leche Bars
Credit: SunnyDaysNora

"A creamy center fills a shortbread-like buttery crust with a crumble-pecan coconut topping," according to recipe creator Cori. "This is a favorite with my family, boyfriend and at my workplace (a bakery!)."

Get the recipe: Dulce De Leche Bars

Dulce de Leche Brownies

Dulce de Leche Brownies
Credit: Roxybc

"A moist and gooey chocolate brownie with pockets of dulce de leche inside and caramel on top," says recipe creator Roxybc. "Truly amazing! If you have enough willpower, try and leave them overnight. They are even better and more moist the next day."

Get the recipe: Dulce de Leche Brownies

Tres Leches Cake with Dulce de Leche

Tres Leches Cake with Dulce de Leche
Credit: Fioa

"This classic moist Mexican cake is soaked in three different milks, but this one comes with a twist: It has an extra layer of dulce de leche," says recipe creator Fioa.