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