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Dulce de Leche Three Ways

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You can make dulce de leche (a sweet, addictive caramel-like sauce popular in Latin America) three different ways. Whether you prefer to use the stove, an electric pressure cooker, or a slow cooker, you really can’t go wrong!

Each method has slightly different ingredients and preparation, and I share the pros and cons of each one in this post.

Dulce de leche dripping off of a spoon

When I tested all three methods – stovetop, Instant Pot, and slow cooker – I found that the results were quite different:

Three different dulce de leches

From top to bottom, this image shows the dulce de leche 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.

Stovetop dulce de leche

The traditional way to make dulce de leche uses a stovetop. It’s by far the most time-consuming method. Like making classic caramel icing, making classic dulce de leche takes hours of monitoring a pot on the stove.

Is it worth the effort? If you have the time, the answer is a resounding yes! We had all three in jars in our refrigerator at once and this is the one that I reached for every time.

Aside from the clear visual difference (the color is so much darker), this version has a far more robust flavor than its hands-off counterparts. 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.

Dulce de leche cake

The Instant Pot produces my second favorite version. 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 milder 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.

Slow Cooker Dulce de Leche

Finally, we come to the slow cooker method. It is the absolute 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.

The problem with this method is inconsistencies between slow cookers.

A mini slow cooker yielded unchanged sweetened condensed milk after a long wait. My full-sized slow cooker produced exactly what I was hoping for. Other slow cookers will produce slightly darker results than what I’m showing here.

If you want easy, definitely give the slow cooker method a try. When you figure out the cooking time required to make it properly with yours, stick with that.

Ingredients

Stovetop

The stovetop preparation requires whole milk, sugar, baking soda, and vanilla extract.

Instant Pot and Slow Cooker

When using these appliances, you will need a can of sweetened condensed milk and water.

How It’s Made

Stovetop

Dulce de leche cupcakes

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.

Adding sugar to milk

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. The baking soda also 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.

adding baking soda to dulce de leche

Bring to a boil, whisking constantly.

Whisking dulce de leche

Turn the burner down and cook on a very low heat (just barely boiling) for about two and a half hours.

Dulce de leche cooking

Stir and scrape the bottom of the pan periodically to make sure it is cooking evenly and not developing lumps.

Dulce de leche in pot

When it has turned a dark color like you see here, whisk in vanilla extract (optional).

Adding vanilla extract to dulce de leche

If needed (which likely won’t be the case), use an immersion blender to remove any lumps and to make sure that your sauce is smooth and creamy.

It will thicken more as it cools, but you’ll need to thicken it even more if you want it to be more of a spread than a syrup.

Tip: 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

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.

water in an 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.

Bowl covered with foil in 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 and carefully remove the bowl from the Instant Pot while wearing oven mitts.

Blend with an immersion blender until completely smooth. It will thicken up as it cools.

Immersion blender in dulce de leche

Slow Cooker

Start by lining your slow cooker bowl 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!

Sweetened condensed milk in a slow cooker

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.
Slow cooker dulce de leche

Expert Tips and FAQs

What is 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.

It’s famously used in sandwich cookies called alfajores, it’s fabulous over any cupcakes (particularly chocolate cupcakes), it makes amazing ice cream, and it is so good in or on top of flan!

Dulce de leche in a can

How is it different from caramel?

Caramel is simply sugar that has been heated for a while. Under 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 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 more subtle flavor and smoother mouth feel than caramel.

Will the can of sweetened condensed milk that I used explode after cooking?

No, it won’t explode if you wait until it cools down. Always wait for the can to cool to room temperature before opening!

How do you store dulce de leche?

You can refrigerate it in an airtight container for up to one month. You can also freeze it for several months.

Did you make this recipe? Leave a review!
Dulce de leche dripping off of a spoon
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Dulce de Leche Recipe

3 ways to make dulce de leche at home
Course Dessert
Cuisine Latin American
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 6 hours
Total Time 6 hours 5 minutes
Servings 12 servings
Calories 106kcal
Author Stefani

Ingredients

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

Instructions

Stovetop Instructions

  • 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.

Notes

The nutrition information shown is for the sweetened condensed milk methods and the time is for the slow cooker method.
When using the slow cooker method, always wait for the can to cool before opening it! If you do not, the can may explode from the pressure change.
With the stovetop method, trying using goat’s milk instead of whole milk to make Mexican cajeta
 

Nutrition

Serving: 2tbsp | Calories: 106kcal | Carbohydrates: 18g | Protein: 3g | Fat: 3g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Cholesterol: 11mg | Sodium: 42mg | Potassium: 123mg | Sugar: 18g | Vitamin A: 88IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 94mg | Iron: 1mg
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