Easy Dulce de Leche Recipe

Make a thick, butterscotch-like sauce with nothing but patience and a can of sweetened condensed milk.

A can of dulce de leche on a wooden trivet with two metal spoons with dulce de leche on them, on a stone background

Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

Why It Works

  • A closed can prevents evaporation, so dulce de leche stays creamy and thick.
  • Pressure builds in a closed can, so there's no need for an Instant Pot or pressure cooker.

Dulce de leche is a creamy, sweet sauce often called Mexican caramel. But while it looks like caramel, it is, in fact, based on the Maillard browning of dairy rather than the caramelization of sugar. That may sound like a technicality, but it gives dulce de leche a sweet and mellow, toffee or butterscotch-like flavor without the bitterness associated with caramel (i.e., burned sugar).

It's traditionally made by simmering a pot of milk and sugar, stirring pretty much constantly, for hours. You could do that, or you could do what is by far the easiest way to make it: skip the stirring and simmer an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pot of water. It's a no-fuss approach to this rich and creamy sauce.

Once cooked and cooled, dulce de leche is delicious straight out of the can (spoon optional), but you can also serve it over ice cream (or even in ice cream, if you're making it yourself) or use it as a filling for cakes, brownies, or cookies.

The can of opened dulce de leche on a wooden trivet with a spoon

Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

Before I go through the insanely easy steps for making dulce de leche this way, I have just one important warning: You must pay attention to the water level in the pot as the can simmers. If you let too much water evaporate and the can ends up not being fully submerged, it can overheat, tear or even explode, which would be bad. Keep the water level at least 2 inches above the can and you'll be fine. Placing the can in the pot on its side means you'll need less water to cover the can and it'll help to prevent the can from bouncing around as it cooks.

February 2015

Recipe Facts

Cook: 3 hrs
Active: 15 mins
Total: 3 hrs
Serves: 6 servings
Makes: 14 ounces

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Ingredients

  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk, label removed

Directions

  1. Place the can on its side in a large pot. Fill pot with room-temperature water, making sure water level is at least 2 inches above can. Remember, it's vital the can remain fully submerged during the entirety of simmering to prevent it from warping and splitting, which can result in injuries.

    The can of condensed milk in a dutch oven filled with water, with a clear ruler placed in the pot to indicate how much water is covering the can

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  2. Set pot over high heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours for light, golden caramel, and up to 3 hours for dark, robust caramel; check pot every 30 minutes to ensure water level stays above can, adding boiling water as necessary to keep can under 2 inches of water.

    Can of condensed milk in a red cast iron pan filled with simmering water

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  3. Using a pair of tongs, remove can from water and set on wire rack to cool to room temperature. Do not attempt to open can while still hot; this can cause pressurized hot caramel to spray dangerously.

    Can of dulce de leche being removed from a cast iron pan of simmering water with metal tongs

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

  4. Unopened cans of dulce de leche can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 months. To use dulce de leche, open can when completely cool and scoop out; reheat in a double boiler to soften dulce de leche to spreadable or drizzle-able consistency. Dulce de leche can be transferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.

    A collage demonstrating the dulce de leche being removed from the can

    Serious Eats / Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

Special Equipment

Dutch oven, tongs, double boiler

Notes

Make sure the can remains fully submerged by at least 2 inches of water. If the can is not fully submerged, it can overheat, tear, and even explode. Also, never try to open a hot can of dulce de leche. Wait until the can has cooled to room temperature before opening it; this can take about 4 hours.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
286 Calories
8g Fat
48g Carbs
7g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6
Amount per serving
Calories 286
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 8g 10%
Saturated Fat 5g 24%
Cholesterol 30mg 10%
Sodium 113mg 5%
Total Carbohydrate 48g 18%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Total Sugars 48g
Protein 7g
Vitamin C 2mg 12%
Calcium 253mg 19%
Iron 0mg 1%
Potassium 331mg 7%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)