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.
What is dulce de leche? While often called Mexican caramel, it's 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). Traditional methods made with fresh milk can take seven hours or more, while starting with a can of sweetened condensed milk drops the time down to two to three hours. It's a no-fuss approach to this rich and creamy sauce.
- 1 (14-ounce) can of sweetened condensed milk, label removed
Place the can on its side in a large pot. Fill the pot with room-temperature water, making sure the water level is at least 2 inches above the can.
Set pot over high heat and allow to come to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours for a lighter caramel, and up to 3 hours for a darker caramel; check the pot every 30 minutes to ensure the water level stays above the can, adding boiling water as necessary to top it up.
Using a pair of tongs, remove the can from the water and set on a wire rack to cool to room temperature (important: do not attempt to open the can while still hot, which can cause pressurized hot caramel to spray dangerously).
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 cool and scoop out of can; reheat in a double boiler to soften dulce de leche to a spreadable or drizzle-able consistency. Dulce de leche can be tranferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 3 weeks.
Make sure the can remains fully submerged by at least an 1 inch of water (preferably more) above it. 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.