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
Dulce de Leche
Dulce de Leche
- 4 cups milk
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
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.)
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.
When it has reached the consistency you are looking for, whisk until smooth and pour into jars. Refrigerate any leftovers.
*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.
If you love dulce de leche, you’ll also love:
- Cajeta (Mexican goat milk dulce de leche)
- Slow Cooker Dulce De Leche (Just set it and forget it!)
- Dulce De Leche Frosting (Also, how to fix a frosting mishap.)
- Turn Your World Upside-Down with Dulce De Leche Flan (A fun twist on a classic favorite!)
- Banana Bread Cookies with Hazelnuts and Dulce de Leche (A great recipe from a great book.)
- Other Frostings and Sauces