Dulce de leche is a sweet, addictive caramel-like sauce popular in Latin America. It is amazing on toast, as a sweetener, or as a frosting for cakes. You can make it three different ways: on the stovetop with whole milk, using a slow cooker with sweetened condensed milk, or in an Instant Pot with sweetened condensed milk. I share the pros and cons of each dulce de leche method here (hint: you really can’t go wrong!).
What Is Dulce de Leche?
Dulce de leche is a sweet caramel-like sauce that is used in Latin American countries as a spread for toast, a sweetener for coffee, and also as an ingredient or topping for cakes, tarts, and candies. I like to drizzle it over my banana cookies.
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 jam.
How Is Dulce de Leche Different From Caramel?
Everyone, myself included, is tempted to call dulce de leche “caramel.” However, it 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.
Dulce de leche, on the other hand, absolutely has to be made with a combination of milk and sugar.
- Some of its unique flavors of 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, dulce de leche will have a softer, smoother flavor than caramel.
How to Make Dulce de Leche
The three most popular dulce de leche recipes are made on the stovetop, in a slow cooker, and in a pressure cooker (Instant Pot).
When I tested all three methods, I found that the results were quite different.
From top to bottom, this image shows the recipe made on the stovetop, in an Instant Pot, and using a slow cooker. Each one is totally delicious, but by no means do they taste the same. Let’s look at each one.
Making it on the stovetop is the traditional way of making the sauce. It’s by far the most time consuming method of the three. Like making classic Southern caramel, making classic dulce de leche takes hours of monitoring a pot on the stove.
With easier methods using modern machines, the question is whether it is worth the effort. If you have the time, the answer is a resounding yes!
Aside from the clear visual difference (the color is so much darker), the stovetop method has a far more robust flavor than its hands-off counter parts. It is almost like the difference between baking with regular butter rather than browned butter or eating dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
It’s also much thinner than the Instant Pot or slow cooker versions, although it can be thickened up. We’ll get to that in a minute.
We had all three in jars in our refrigerator at once and this is the one that I reached for every time.
Start by combining milk, sugar, and baking soda in a medium-sized saucepan. Use one that is larger than you think you need so that it doesn’t boil over.
Why use baking soda?
- Faster cook time – Baking soda raises the pH of the liquid (meaning that it becomes less acidic). Food chemists say that this makes the caramelization and Maillard reactions occur more quickly.
- Smoother result – The baking soda helps to prevent the milk proteins from coagulating, which makes it easier to produce a caramel-like sauce that is smooth and free from lumps.
Bring to a boil, whisking constantly.
Turn the burner down and cook on a very low heat (just barely boiling) for about two and a half hours.
Stir and scrape the bottom of the pan periodically to make sure it is cooking evenly and not developing lumps.
When it has turned the color you like, whisk in vanilla extract. This is optional, but most people like a little vanilla in their recipe.
If needed (which likely won’t be the case), use an immersion blender to remove any lumps and make sure that your sauce is smooth and creamy.
It will thicken more as it cools. But, if you want it to be more of a spread than a syrup, you’ll need to thicken it even more.
To thicken stovetop dulce de leche:
Make a slurry of 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch with 1 1/4 teaspoons milk. Bring it to a very slow boil over medium heat, whisk this slurry into the dulce de leche, and continue to boil slowly for five minutes before removing from heat and cooling.
Instant Pot dulce de leche was our second favorite dulce de leche. It thickens up really nicely and has a full flavor – its flavor is not quite as robust as the stovetop version, but nobody will complain about it. And, for many, this more mild flavor is what they think of as the taste of dulce de leche.
It’s the one I reached for when I made my dulce de leche cake.
Instant Pot dulce de leche has a single ingredient – sweetened condensed milk.
Instant Pot Recipe
Smell the silicone ring inside of the Instant Pot lid before you start. If it smells like garlic from some dinner you made, give it a good clean before using it or buy a second one and designate it for desserts. You don’t want that garlic smell to permeate your dulce de leche! Now that everything smells fresh, you can begin.
Pour one cup of water into your Instant Pot.
Pour a can of sweetened condensed milk into a stainless steel or oven-safe glass bowl, cover with foil, and place it in the water. If you don’t cover the sweetened condensed milk with foil, the steam from pressure cooking will condense on top of the sweetened condensed milk and the texture will be all off.
Because of the intense pressure inside of an Instant Pot, never put a can of sweetened condensed milk directly into the Instant Pot.
Place the lid on the Instant Pot, set to sealing, and pressure cook at high pressure for 90 minutes.
When the time is up, do a full natural release.
Carefully remove the bowl from the Instant Pot.
Blend the dulce de leche with an immersion blender until smooth.
It will thicken as it cools.
The slow cooker method is the easiest!
I used to love slow cooker dulce de leche until I tried the other two methods. But, the transformation from sweetened condensed milk to a new caramel-like substance isn’t as dramatic as the other versions. Think of it more like toasted marshmallows vs. marshmallows rather than cake vs. cake batter.
Part of the problem with this method is inconsistencies between slow cookers. When we tried the method in a mini slow cooker on low heat, we found that we still had sweetened condensed milk after a long wait. However, it worked quite well with another, full-sized slow cooker and still others produce slightly darker results than the ones I’m showing here.
If you don’t own an Instant Pot and want quick and easy dulce de leche, definitely give the slow cooker method a try.
Slow Cooker Recipe
Line the bottom of a slow cooker with foil. This prevents the slow cooker from getting rusty. I’ve been there and I don’t recommend it.
Peel the label off of a 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, place it in the slow cooker, and submerge it in water. Make sure it is completely submerged with room to spare!
Cover and cook!
At low temperature:
- After 6 hours, the slow cooker dulce de leche should have the consistency of caramel sauce. At this stage, it is great for pouring over ice cream or adding to coffee in the morning.
- After 10 hours, the dulce de leche should thicken to the point where you can spread it like a preserve.
Will the cans explode?
If your question is, “Will cans explode when I open them,” the answer is easy: Not if you wait until they cool down.
Always wait for cans to come to room temperature before opening!
If you took a steaming hot can out of the slow cooker and broke the seal right away with a can opener, then the pressurized air inside might catch some of the hot, sugary mixture and shoot it out at your tender skin or face. Play it cool, wait for cans to chill to a workable temperature, and you’ll be fine.
But the other explosion-related question (that so many people asked me!) is, “Will the cans explode just by cooking them like this?” I can happily say that they will not!
How to Store Dulce de Leche
Store dulce de leche in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to one month.
You can also freeze it for several months.
One of the most common variations of dulce de leche is cajeta.
Cajeta is made the same way as dulce de leche but with goat’s milk. It’s very common in Mexico.
Dulce de Leche Recipe
Dulce de Leche
- 4 cups milk stovetop method only
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar stovetop method only
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda stovetop method only
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract stovetop method only
- 14 ounces sweetened condensed milk Instant Pot and slow sooker methods only
- Combine all ingredients except vanilla extract in 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 so the mixture is just barely boiling and cook for about two and a half to three hours until it turns a deep caramel color. Stir and scrape the bottom and side of the pan periodically to guarantee even cooking. Note that it will thicken as it cools.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in vanilla extract.
- Use an immersion blender if necessary to remove any lumps.
- If you find that your dulce de leche is still too thin after cooling, make a slurry of 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch with 1 1/4 teaspoons milk. Bring the dulce de leche to a very slow boil over medium heat, whisk this slurry into the dulce de leche, and continue to boil slowly for five minutes before removing from heat and cooling.
- To store, pour cooled dulce de leche into airtight containers and refrigerate for up to a month or freeze for several months.
Instant Pot Instructions
- Pour one cup of water into an Instant Pot. (It is very important that the sealing ring be completely clean and odor-free or your dulce de leche will end up tasting like the last meal you prepared in the Instant Pot.)
- Pour the can of sweetened condensed milk into a stainless steel or oven-safe bowl that will fit inside of the Instant Pot.
- Cover the bowl tightly with aluminum foil. This prevents condensation that results from pressure cooking from ruining the dulce de leche.
- Place the bowl inside of the water bath in the Instant Pot.
- Close the Instant Pot, set it to sealing, and pressure cook at high pressure for 90 minutes.
- When finished, perform a natural release and carefully remove the hot bowl from the Instant Pot and remove the aluminum foil.
- Use an immersion blender to blend the dulce de leche until it reaches a smooth consistency. Note that it will thicken as it cools.
- To store, cool and pour into airtight containers and refrigerate for up to a month or freeze for several months.
Slow Cooker Instructions
- Line your slow cooker with aluminum foil. This prevents the ceramic bowl from accumulating rust from the cooking process that is difficult to clean.
- Remove the label from the can of sweetened condensed milk and place into the foil-lined slow cooker.
- Fill the slow cooker with water, making sure to completely submerge the can of sweetened condensed milk. This can must remain covered with water during the cooking process.
- Cook on low temperature for six to 10 hours, depending on how thick you want your resulting dulce de leche. After 6 hours, the slow cooker dulce de leche should have the consistency of caramel sauce. At this stage, it is great for pouring over ice cream or adding to coffee in the morning. After 10 hours, the dulce de leche should thicken to the point where you can spread it like a preserve.
- When finished, remove the can from the slow cooker and allow to cool to room temperature before opening.
- To store, pour into airtight containers and refrigerate for up to a month or freeze for several months.