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What Is Dulce de Leche?

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What is dulce de leche?

This week, I made chocolate dulce de leche cupcakes. When I told my friends and family about it, the most common response was, “Huh? What is dulce de leche?”

What Is Dulce de Leche?

Dulce de leche is a sweet sauce that is used in Latin American countries as a spread for toast, a sweetener for coffee, and also as an ingredient in cakes, tarts, and candies. Cooked just a little, it is a thin syrup that can be used to pour over ice cream or anywhere else you would use caramel. If you cook it down more, it turns into a thick, rich milk preserve that can be spread like apple butter.

The traditional way to make dulce de leche is to cook a mixture of milk and sugar on the stovetop over a long, slow heat until the sugars start to caramelize. Millions of people around the world have discovered, though, that it is much easier to just buy a can of condensed milk and simmer it in a slow cooker for a few hours. The result isn’t quite as nice as the slow, hand-made version, but it sure is easier.

But you know what is even easier than slow cooker dulce de leche? Going to the grocery store and buying a can of dulce de leche! Like everything else that people eat every day, most people don’t make it from scratch themselves. If the only way you could eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was to first crush a bunch of peanuts and cook down a couple pounds of grapes into jelly—it wouldn’t be the comfort food that we know and love.

How Is Dulce de Leche Different from Caramel?

Everyone, myself included, is tempted to call dulce de leche “caramel.” However, dulce de leche is really quite different from caramel. Caramel is simply sugar that has been heated for a while—that’s it! Under the heat, the sugars break down and re-form into thousands of new little molecules that smell and taste great.

Most cooks add water when making caramel to help keep it from burning. When making candies or thicker caramel sauces such as caramel icing, they will add butter, cream, and other ingredients, too. But when it comes down to it, what makes caramel caramel is just that you are slowly heating sugar for a while

Dulce de leche, on the other hand, absolutely has to be made with a combination of milk and sugar. Some of the the classic flavors of dulce de leche come from the caramelization of the sugars, but some come from more complicated Maillard reactions between the proteins of the milk and the added sugar. On the whole, your dulce de leche will have a softer, smoother flavor than caramel.

Where Does Dulce de Leche Come From?

Alright, now that we have answered the question, “What is dulce de leche?” we can move on to figuring out where it comes from. As sometimes happens, there are two stories about where dulce de leche comes from—the fun story (that probably isn’t true) and the boring story (that probably is). Since I want you to stick around, I’ll tell the boring one first.

The boring story of dulce de leche is that, since it just takes milk and a little added sugar, probably a lot of people in a lot of different places have been making something like it for a long time. The French citizens of Normandy, for example, say that they have made their similar confiture de lait since the middle ages. Probably, the modern form of dulce de leche that is so classic to us now came together slowly throughout South America, as people modified other, older recipes (like manjar and blancmange), cooking the milk longer to increase the caramel flavors and taking out the thickeners to keep it spreadable.

But what if we don’t really care what food historians think? What if we just want a good story? In that case, here it goes:

Picture it: Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1829. The country has been fighting a terrible civil war for months. The brutal warlord Juan Manuel de Rosas agrees to meet with his bitter rival, General Juan Lavalle, to come to an agreement and stop the war. De Rosa’s maid is in the kitchen downstairs, cooking a pot of milk and sugar for lechada.

Lavalle comes to the door, but no one is there to greet him. The loyal maid greets General Lavalle and brings him upstairs to meet with de Rosas. But by the time she returns to the stove, the lechada has cooked so long it has turned into dulce de leche!

In the end, the truce brokered that night didn’t last. A few months later, General Lavalle fled into exile and Juan Manuel de Rosas began decades of brutal, tyrannical rule over most of Argentina. But the dulce de leche that de Rosas’s maid accidentally created would last forever.

When I goof up in the kitchen, things just end up burnt.

The Dulce de Leche Cocktail in Guys and Dolls

My first introduction to dulce de leche was in the 1955 movie version of the musical Guys and Dolls. The card shark Sky Masterson (played by Marlon Brando, back when he was still young and hot) takes a young ingenue (Sarah Brown, played by Jean Simmons) with him down to Havana, Cuba. The two of them are sitting in a cafe and Sky starts to order a round of drinks. Sarah is a good, Christian girl who works for the Salvation Army, so she tries to keep to the straight-and-narrow path by ordering a milkshake. Sky suggests she order a “dulce de leche” instead, explaining that it is like a milkshake, but with a bit of Bacardi rum added “as a preservative.” The ruse works, they spend the night together drinking and falling in love, and (like all good musicals) everybody gets married in the end.

The interesting thing is that no one seems to know exactly what drink they are referring to in this scene. A number of years ago, the journalist Eric Felten wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, sorry) did some research and the only thing he could find in Cuba in the 1950s called dulce de leche were the typical desserts I talked about earlier. But he did find a drink called the “doncellita” (a respectful term for a young woman), which was made from the alcoholic creme de cacao and cream, and which our Miss Sarah Brown probably would have liked quite a lot.

So What Do I Do with Dulce de Leche?

Dulce de leche is so tasty, so simple, and keeps so well, that you can use it in pretty much anything. The following list might help give you some good ideas.

• Stir some into your coffee in the morning

• If it is thin enough, pour it over ice cream

• If it is thicker, spread it like a preserve over anything—toast, pancakes, waffles, crepes, whatever

• Add a bit to cookies, cakes, pastries—or whatever else you are baking—to give them a dark, rich, caramely punch


4.5 from 2 votes

Dulce de Leche

Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Keyword dulce de leche, what is dulce de leche


Dulce de Leche

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract



  1. Combine milk, sugar, and vanilla into a pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. (Make sure the pot is big enough so the milk won’t spill over the sides when it boils.)

  2. Turn heat down and simmer over very low heat for about two and a half to three hours. Check the mixture every once in a while to make sure it isn't scalding.

  3. When it has reached the consistency you are looking for, whisk until smooth and pour into jars. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Recipe Notes

*Note: I had mine on the stove for 5 hours! It is possible that this was because I didn't whisk it enough at the beginning. I had a metal whisk and a teflon pot, and I didn't want to scratch the pot. I know, pots are meant to be scratched. But my husband likes our pots to stay looking brand new and I didn't want to mess it up. It still came out perfectly—it just took longer. Just be sure to keep an eye on it. You'll know it's done when it starts sticking to the spoon. It won't really get thick until it gets off the stove and cools down.

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27 comments on “What Is Dulce de Leche?”

  1. CB says:

    I love dulce de leche (and I know what it is!) but I admit that I was very well educated when buying my wedding cupcakes on the topic. Its freaking YUMMY!

  2. Ha, I never even realized that dulce de leche was mentioned in Guys and Dolls! I love that musical. And dulce de leche.

  3. Gigi says:

    The dulce de leche from condensed milk is the closest to the real thing. I go to the Mexican Rivera every summer, when I go, I’ll send you a sampler pack. You have to try it. It’s divine on toast!

  4. Matthew says:

    You can use a pressure cooker to shorten the condensed milk method. It’s also safer: the cans are subject to completely uniform temperature and pressure, greatly reducing risk of an “incident.”

    Remove can label, but leave can otherwise entirely intact. Place one or more cans in pressure cooker and cover -completely- with water. You want the cans to remain fully submerged throughout the process.

    Bring up to pressure and cook for 20-40 minutes, depending on desired firmness.

    Allow the cans to cool, and enjoy.

  5. Muffin says:

    I have a question for you. Maybe its just the photo, but it looks like your dulce de leche is kind of… chunky. Is it supposed to be that way? I make it all the time and its always super smooth.

    *just as an aside, I don’t mean this rudely, I’m really just curious*

    Also, I love all of the stuff you make here, you’re such a great cupcake inspiration!

  6. Stef says:

    CB – Of course you know what it is! Not at all surprised. It is so good!

    Soundless – I’m a huge Guys and Dolls fan. We used to have family Guys and Dolls sing-a-longs when I was a kid.

    Gigi – Have I mentioned how awesome you are?

    Matthew – Hmm.. perhaps I need to add a pressure cooker to my list of kitchen products to buy. Thanks for the tip!

    Muffin – I’m curious how you make it? Mine was probably chunkier than normal due to my lack of vigorous wisking. No offense taken. I’m new to the world of dulce de leche. It sure tasted good and it spread really well. Glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks!

  7. i love your blog! oi the first visit and you’re already talking about my favorite thing ever… dulce de leche (i need to figure out how to make it vegan!)!

    i’ll be back!

  8. Stef says:

    Shannie – Thanks! Glad you stopped by. I look forward to seeing you around!

  9. clumsy says:

    Wow, awesome picture—I love the action shot!!! I’m so glad I inspired you to make this, and now I have some wonderful cocktail recipes! Thanks so much!

  10. Hande says:

    I have been told that real dulce de leche has to be made with the first method but I make it in yet another way: It is easier and uses condensed milk like the second method but is not as dangerous! (Are you aware that a can under pressure will explode? With a hot liquid in it? Never, never do this!) Just open a can of condensed milk, pour it into a shallow oven-proof dish. Sprinkle with some fleur de sel. Cover with foil. Put this dish into a baking tray, fill the baking tray with warm water till it reaches halfway up the smaller dish and put the whole thing into a 220°C warm oven for 1-1,5 hours. That is it! Whisk smooth before filling into a jar.

  11. HI… I make my the traditional Latin way of boiling an unopened can in a saucepan. Way easier, but takes longer. I made some last week with coconut in it! It was great.
    I’ll post it up on my blog next week when I remake it! Yours looks good and thanks for clearing up the difference b/w DdL and caramel. A lot of ppl confuse them for being the same. NOT!


  12. chef jack says:

    question: with the dulce drinks, do you just add the dulce de leche according to your taste? it’s not really listed as an ingredient (unless i’m missing something).

    i’m going to get some milk in the morning! (for the, uh, dulce cake)

    great post!

  13. Stef says:

    Hande – Neat recipe! I’ll have to give it a try!

    Flanboyant – Oooh.. it would be so good with coconut! I’ll be sure to check out your post.

    Chef Jack – I don’t think there is actually dulce de leche in the drinks. I really have no idea though. Those were the only recipes I could found. I was hoping someone else would know.

  14. Rosie says:

    You can caramelize condensed milk in a crockpot if you have one – you just open the can, put a bit of tinfoil over the top, and put the whole can in the crockpot with a cup of warm water. Put the lid on the pot and then just leave it be for 4 – 6 hours on high. It gets darker the longer you leave it, but there is no chance of it exploding.

  15. Stef says:

    Rosie – Interesting. I hadn’t heard of that method before.

  16. Shari says:

    I like your idea of a Dulce de Leche martini!
    Shari@Whisk: a food blog

  17. Shannon says:

    Also, caramel is caramel through the process of carmelization while dulce de leche is dulce de leche through the malliard reaction, which is similar to but diffrent than carmelization. Also for the sweetened condensed milk method, poke two tiny tiny holes in the top, it wont explode and it will cook very evenly, unwatched

  18. Melisa says:

    Please, go to any argentinian´s house or shop (i´m shure you have one closer) and buy the original! For example Poncho Negro, San Ignacio or Salamandra. You´ll know the heaven!

  19. hue klenom says:

    Easiest way of making Doce de Leite is put a condensed milk can in a pressure cooker. It may sounds dangerous, but i assume that the can have the strength to not explode inside the pan.

    If you love beans (here in Brasil we buy beans not cooked) and use the pressure cooker to accelerate the process. Do 2 things in a row. Cook a bowl of black beans and a condensed milk can (sans the paper!).

    Put the can away `till it colds. And in the mean time make a “feijoada” like beans. Put some sausage, pork meat, bacon and u have an “almost” traditional brazilian meal…

  20. Stef says:

    I just tried making slow cooker dulce de leche. Loved it!

  21. Gabriela says:

    I saw something about a drink with Doce de Leite. Here is one.
    Batida de Doce de Leite.
    In a 2 liter bottle add 2 cans of doce de leite ( considering that you are using the condensed milk method)
    same measure of milk and add Cachaca to taste.

    Another variation is to substitute the plain milk for coconut milk.

    Once the liquids are in, close it up and give it a good shake, that’s what the name means, BATIDA: beat, mixed.

  22. Celi says:

    As the true argentinian i am , i feel the need to educate you a bit on this specific topic, you see i eat dulce de leche almost every day, so i believe i know what i’m talking about. I have sampled millions of diferent brands and once i even tried an international brand brought over from the uk,let me just tell you they don’t taste the same. You have to try the original brands, specially from argentina or uruguay, beacause it was created in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. As someone here wisely said, one of the best brands is San Ignacio or Ilolay, but try the dulce de leche repostero, it’s thicker than the regular one and incredibly yummy. Surprisingly, the best dulce de leche i have ever tried is from uruguay , not argentina, and is called Lapataia. It goes brilliantly with pancakes, cakes, even crackers. Hope it helps someone.
    OHH AND PS: there is not such thing as a diet dulce the leche, they come a bit close but they don’t compare.

  23. Perla says:

    If you can get your hands on some fresh( and by fresh i mean just milked out of a cow fresh)milk and some firewood it would come out a lot better, although it is a lot more work. I’m Mexican, were dulce de leche is also very popular along with its more syrupy counterpart the cajeta. The women in my family have made the candy several times by taking turns during those long hours and the best ones came out of fresh milk(which we call leche bronca) and a fire. Just a suggestion in case you would like to try it, because like i said it takes a lot more work.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Bit late to the party, but I was taught a secret trick to get your dulce super smooth, when cooking it from scratch(Recipe One). The secret is adding glass marbles to the pot, and stirring with a wooden spoon. I looked all over for what a Colombian friend’s mother called “baletas” to add to help stir the dulce as it cooks. After searching for several months at specialty kitchen stores, I realized that she had described marbles, so I went to the store and grabbed a bag. It works every time, and I’ve never had one break. As the mixture boils, the marbles bubble through and help stir your dulce. She also added a pinch of baking powder. Good luck!

  25. AVIVA says:

    Can I use dulce de leche in a recipe that calls for condensed milk maybe thin it a bit with milk?

  26. SR says:

    Mexico’s version of dulce de leche, called cajeta, is made with goat’s milk (or sometimes a mix of goat’s & cow’s milk). Sugar may or may not be added. The milk is reduced and the sugars are caramelized. It is said to have originated near the town of Celaya in or around 1810, at the dawn of the Mexican War for Independence. The reduced & caramelized milk lasted longer & traveled better than regular milk, making it good soldier food.
    Given this use, I suspect that what was made at the time was something between sweetened condensed milk & modern cajeta, and that the more caramelized version evolved later. In the U.S., milk was sweetened to inhibit bacterial growth, then condensed & canned so that it could be stored unrefrigerated. This dramatically reduced the incidence of disease & death in children caused by consumption of spoiled milk.

  27. Katie says:

    To the one who couldn’t scratch the pan. If I’m the one cooking that pan will get scratched and I would tell hubby take a walk on a short dock. What the heck is wrong with him. Also, what is wrong with you? He sounds controlling and abusive. Sorry, but your comment left me to think this….

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