Dulce de leche: a secret no longer

July 9, 2008

Dulce de leche is a wonderful, milk-based Latin caramel sauce. In case you haven’t been to a restaurant, read a magazine or grocery shopped recently so that you could notice yourself, it’s one this summer’s newest mainstream flavour trends.

While just a few years ago dulce de leche was the sweet, rich secret known only by hardcore food lovers and the Latin community, today it’s widely available to consumers. Heck, even Smuckers has a dulce de leche topping now.

About 5 years ago though, it was impossible to buy dulce de leche in Toronto so I learned to make my own. I was surprised to find out that it’s made by slowly cooking sweetened condensed milk until it is caramelized. It seemed like there should be more to it. This sauce was gourmet; it was special. Could it really be made by cooking a can of goo until it turned brown?

Turns out the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Although most people do make dulce de leche using sweetened condensed milk, you can start with whole milk and a whole lotta sugar but in the latter case you need to simmer it gently for many, many hours.

While I used a double boiler to make my dulce de leche, I’ve since seen methods for using the oven and a pressure cooker. (I’ve seen a few recipes that use these methods on closed cans of sweetened condensed milk; however, the manufacturers and other smart people strongly advise against this idea.)

I’ve summarized each method for you below and hope that if you’ve tried more than one of these techniques that you’ll tell us which one you preferred and why.

Double Boiler Method: Fill the bottom of a double boiler or a saucepan with a couple of inches of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Scrape sweetened condensed milk from can into the top of the double boiler or a metal bowl. Place over the simmering water. Cook, stirring often, for 50 to 60 minutes or until sweetened condensed milk is caramel coloured. Cool completely before covering tightly and refrigerating.

Oven Method: Remove labels and lids from cans of sweetened condensed milk. Cover each can tightly with foil. Place cans in a deep roasting pan. Pour in enough boiling water to cover the bottom 5/6 of the cans. Cover with lid for roaster and transfer to an oven preheated to 425 °F (220° C). Bake for two hours, adding more water to the roaster occasionally. Cool completely before transferring the caramel to a container with a tightly fitting lid. Refrigerate.

Pressure Cooker Method: Proceed as directed in the oven method but place cans into a pressure cooker instead of a roaster. Add water as directed above and cover with the pressure cooker lid, securing closed according to manufacturer’s instructions. Bring to a boil over high heat. When pan begins hissing, depress pressure valve and lower heat to medium-low. Simmer for 30 minutes.