Dulce de Leche - Stovetop and Crock Pot Recipes for a Latin American Favorite

I'm a dulce de leche nut. The first time I had tried it was when a bride requested it as a filling for a her wedding cake many years ago. It was before there were dulce de leche Girl Scout cookies were invented and dulce de leche ice cream was popular. Fellow work mates from Latin America and Mexico were astounded that I'd never tried it, and me being a caramel girl over chocolate any day, was in heaven the moment I had tasted it. 

For those that still haven't tasted dulce de leche, it is a caramel-like confection that is so unlike typical caramel in many ways. It is rich and has an incredible mouth feel. It is dense, and can actually be whipped up after it has chilled for a day in the fridge for easy and delicious mini tarts. It can be served by itself as a topping, a sweet dip, or an ingredient inside a tart or pie. And, as I discovered after the wedding, makes an incredibly indulgent filling for a wedding cake. If it is made correctly, the result will be spoon-thick rather than thick and syrupy.

Dulce de leche is a cooked milk topping that can be made in a variety of ways. If you have ever closely read the label on a can of sweetened condensed milk, you'll find wording written somewhere along the lines of "Do not heat this can." If you've ever thought why in the heck would someone want to heat a can of this stuff in the first place - well, that is one way to make dulce de leche: heating a can of sweetened condensed milk until the milk turns a rich, golden color. I've been assured by many people that if you follow their instructions the can won't explode. Knowing me, I'd blow it up. I'd find a way and then I'd be cleaning up the mess for days afterwards, even if I used a pressure cooker which a friend told me was foolproof.


I'm a safety girl, so I cook my can of sweetened condensed milk a little differently. I just poke a small hole in the top with a can opener (small triangle, see photo). And I cook it in the crock pot. I just add water almost up to the top of the lid. If you are going to be around, then cooking dulce de leche on the stovetop with whole milk and sugar will yield excellent results as well.

For the stovetop method, you will find recipes with baking soda and without it. Some swear that including it will result in truly authentic dulce de leche, and others say it cooks up just fine without it. The thought process behind including the baking soda includes these theories: it keeps it smooth; it helps with the browning; or it keeps away bitterness. Another theory of why it is important is that it increases the pH level which aids in the malolactic fermentation of the cooking process, whereas typical caramel made with caramelized sugar is just the browning of the sugar. I've always made it with the baking soda so I can't compare it to making dulce de leche without it.

I've included my recipes for both methods: stovetop using whole milk and a crock pot with a can of sweetened condensed milk. If you are short on time, Cooking for Engineers has a recipe for microwave dulce de leche. No matter which way you go, once you've tried a homemade dulce de leche, caramel will be so yesterday.

Color of dulce de leche will depend on how long you've cooked it.

Dulce De Leche (Stovetop Method with Whole Milk)
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Scald the whole milk. Add the sugar, baking soda, and vanilla and stir until the sugar is dissolved, and the mixture comes to a soft boil over medium heat. You are going to have to watch it closely until the mixture comes to a boil. Once it does, the mixture will bubble up and it loves to boil over. Once it begins to bubble up, move it off the heat and stir it down. Put it back on the stove again and skim off the foam. Once the foam is skimmed it won't bubble again like it did before. Continue cooking the mixture over low to medium-low until the mixture is thick and dark brown, about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how thick and dark you want it, and how vigorously the milk was simmering.

Remove from heat and transfer to a jar. Cool, then refrigerate.


Dulce de leche will be thick enough to spoon out of the can.


Dulce de Leche (Crock Pot with Sweetened Condensed Milk)
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk

Remove the paper label around the can to prevent the paper from dissolving and making a mess in the water bath. Using a can opener, poke a small hole in the top of the can. Place the can in the crock pot and fill it up with water nearly to the top of the can. Cover with a lid and put the setting to high. Cook for four hours and check the color of the milk that is escaping through the small hole. If you want it darker and firmer, cook for an additional 1 to 2 hours. Time will depend on how dark you want the dulce de leche, and how hot your crock pot gets. My new crock pot shaves an entire hour off the cooking time.

Cool on a rack at room temperature until it is cool enough to place in the fridge. Do not place hot in the refrigerator. Refrigerate overnight, then open and serve.



 

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