Sunday, January 4, 2009

Homemade Christmas: Dulce de Leche

This post is overdue – seeing as how it's January – but you'll forgive me, right?

Every year I make and give homemade treats for Christmas gifts. This year I decided to go on a canning kick. I wanted to give several different types of canned treats and set out to find a variety of recipes.

That's when I decided upon Dulce de Leche – a sweet caramel-like sauce made from milk. In researching which recipe to use, I came across three very different ways to prepare Dulce de Leche. I decided to test all three techniques before deciding which was the best for my gift-giving purposes.

Two of the recipes call for using (almost) nothing but sweetened condensed milk. The third seemed to be the most homemade and was the version I was routing for.

The first technique I tried seemed to be the most dangerous. I almost skipped this test all together but then changed my mind when I saw a recipe for this method on the Food Network site.

Dulce de Leche
Source: Gale Gand
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Remove label from the can. Stand the can in a saucepan and add water to cover. (Note: Do NOT open or puncture the can in any way prior to cooking.) Bring the water to a gentle simmer and keep it there for 3 hours, adding water as needed to keep the can submerged. (WARNING: Please be careful and keep the can submerged otherwise there is a risk of the can exploding!)

Using tongs, carefully (it's hot!) remove the can from the pot and allow it to cool completely before opening. The milk will have transformed into a smooth, creamy, caramel-colored sauce, dulce de leche.

Transfer cooled Dulce de Leche to a mason jar and store, covered, in the refrigerator.

The second technique is a safer version of the condensed milk option which uses the oven instead of the boil-in-can technique.

Dulce de Leche or Confiture de Lait
Source: David Lebovitz, Adapted from The Perfect Scoop
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Sea Salt

Preheat the oven to 425° F (220° C).

Pour the can of sweetened condensed milk into a glass pie plate or shallow baking dish. Stir in a few flecks of sea salt.

Set the pie plate within a larger pan, such as a roasting pan, and add hot water until it reaches halfway up the side of the pie plate.

Cover the pie plate snugly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 to 1¼ hours. (Check a few times during baking and add more water to the roasting pan as necessary).

Once the Dulce de Leche is nicely browned and caramelized, remove from the oven and let cool. Once cool, whisk until smooth.

Store in the refrigerator.

The final technique comes from Alton Brown, the goofy guru of food science and host of Good Eats.

Dulce de Leche
Source: Alton Brown
1 quart whole milk
12 ounces sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeded
½ teaspoon baking soda

Add milk, sugar and vanilla bean to a large saucepan set over medium heat. Stir until sugar has melted then add ½ teaspoon of baking soda. Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered for 1 hour, stirring occasionally (the mixture may foam up a bit but that's okay).

After one hour, remove vanilla bean and continue to cook for 1½ to 2 more hours until mixture reduces to one cup and is the color of dark caramel.

Strain into a mason jar and refrigerate for up to four weeks.

So, after thorough testing, I determined that the best method for my gifted dulce de leche was Gale Gand's boil-in-can technique.

The baked version was not fool-proof enough for making in mass quantities – I clearly took it out of the oven too soon as the color had not gotten nearly dark enough.

The homemade stove-top version had quite an odd texture indeed. I'm sure this had something to do with my preparation as after nearly 2
½ hours of cooking, it still looked like milk. I cranked up the heat until the mixture boiled then reduced and cooked for another 2 hours. This left me with a beautiful caramel color but a foamy and somewhat gritty texture. I would like to try this one again being sure to bring the milk to a boil before adding the baking soda.

So yes, while I was scared to pieces making the Gale Gand boil-in-can version, it came out nicely browned, thick and creamy. Plus, I could boil a few cans at a time making it ideal for making large quantities.

Now, while the boil-in-can method was
my favorite, I'm sure all of these methods could have produced beautiful dulce de leche. I encourage you to try each and find your favorite.


  1. Great post! I love the side by side comparison. Makes me want to dig a spoon into each to judge for myself. :)

  2. What a great, informative post! I've been boiling my unopened cans for years and I'm still alive :)

  3. You did an awesome job! It is so cool to look at them all lined up and be able to compare the colors. I'm such a wimp, I just buy it in the can already made. You rock!

  4. An excellent post--I love people who test things for me! :0)

  5. I have worked as a pastry chef and I would like to make a suggestion. Try making Alton Brown's recipe but add either some corn syrup or agave syrup. Just a few tablespoons. These are invert sugars. The odd texture probably has to do with the sugar crystallization. By adding a little bit of an invert sugar prevents crystallization of the sucrose. Try it and I think you will find the flavor of the Brown recipe and texture wonderful compared to the others. I may be wrong!

  6. Thanks for the suggestion -- I had felt like the Brown recipe should have been a winner and was wanting to test it again. I will give your trick a try!

  7. I am curious, did you just put it in jars, or did you run it through a canner to preserve it?

  8. I only put it in jars, I did not can it.

  9. Please do not cook Dulce de Leche in a can. The aluminum in the can leeches into the milk. All you need to do is to pour the milk into a pint canning jar and put on a lid tightly. Then cook like in the can. Or, better yet, cook it in a crockpot. Fill the crockpot to the level of the lid and cook on high for 5-8 hours, depending on how dark you like it. That's one advantage to cooking it in jars!

    I'm addicted to Dulce de Leche.