A number of things happen when you cook milk and sugar down for an obscene amount of time. First, you see it thicken, then it begins to brown. Once it’s reached a consistency akin to custard and has achieved a golden brown somewhere between Rob Lowe and David Hasselhoff you have achieved what most of the world refers to as Dulce de Leche.
A flavorful, creamy, spreadable sweet that is as versatile as it is delicious. In Argentina, where it is said to have originated, it’s common practice to spread Dulce de Leche on toast for breakfast. Used to fill pastries, and cakes, poured over ice cream or incorporated into cheesecake, Dulce de Leche is the mother of all sweet accompaniments. Similar to caramel, but very much its own dish, Dulce de Leche is complex and finishes with a bite.
History of Dulce de Leche
It’s only natural that something so toothsome should be the subject of controversy. In Latin America where Dulce de Leche reigns supreme, several countries (Uruguay, Argentina, and Mexico) all lay claim to the invention of the dessert. Though Argentina seems to have won the battle through sheer force of will, the true origins of the dish remain shaky.
The French claim that it was Napoleon’s cook who first bumbled across Dulce de Leche in the 19th century. An accident that ended very fortunately for the Bonapartists. Argentina’s story is similar, focusing around the political leader Manuel de Rosa and his cook. Manuel’s absent-minded cook forgot about the Lechada (a drink made of milk and sugar) she was cooking, only to find something much better upon her return.
Other food historians maintain that it came from Indonesia, traveling to the Philippines in the sixteenth century and eventually taking its place in the Spanish gastronomic repertoire when the Philippines were conquered in 1561.
Though Dulce de Leche’s history is surprisingly bland, the dish itself is as previously mentioned something otherworldly and can be made in a multitude of ways. Here are five easy methods for making Dulce de Leche that anyone can manage with nothing more than a pot of water, a can of sweetened condensed milk, and a little patience.
The Big Five
Number 1: The Stovetop Method
This is the most labor-intensive way to make Dulce de Leche, but some prefer the ability to source their own ingredients.
4 cups Whole Milk
2 cups Sugar
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract or 1 Vanilla Bean
In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan bring milk to a boil. Once the milk is bubbling add in all remaining ingredients and whisk until well combined and the sugar has completely dissolved. Turn down the heat and simmer the combination over medium-low heat for two to three hours. Stirring only occasionally, every fifteen minutes or so. Test for doneness by spooning out a small portion of the dulce onto a plate. If it stays firmly in the middle without running the dulce is ready.
Number 2: The Double-boiler Method
1 (14 oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
Begin by filling the bottom of a double-boiler around halfway with water. You’ll definitely want more than the typical inch in the bottom for this recipe. Bring the water to a rolling boil before lowering the temperature just enough to maintain a steady simmer. Add in the sweetened condensed milk and begin to cook. Every forty-five minutes or so, give the milk a stir and check the level of the water, adding more as it evaporates. Continue this for 2½ to 3 hours until you’ve reached a thick pudding-like consistency and a gorgeous golden brown. Allow time for the Dulce de Leche to cool and thicken completely before using.
Number 3: The Open-Can Closed-Can Method
This is the most controversial of the five, as with the closed-can method you run the risk of your can(s) exploding while they cook. This only happens if you forget about the task at hand and let the water level get too low. Water acts as an insulator never allowing the can or what’s inside it to get hotter than 100℃/212℉. So long as the can is fully submerged there is no need to fear.
1 (14 oz) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
Fill a large pot, equipped with a lid with water and bring to a rolling boil. Remove the labels from the cans and using a pair of canning tongs gently place your can(s) of sweetened condensed milk in the water on their sides. Make sure the water level is at least an inch higher than the cans. Boil for three to four hours (depending on how thick you want your dulce) checking on the water level every forty minutes or so. When done remove the can and allow to cool completely before attempting to open it. Otherwise, you’ll be faced with a scalding geyser of caramelized milk.
To avoid even the possibility of an explosion you can employ the open-can method. Begin by removing the wrapper from the can and poking a hole in the top with a can opener. Place the can, hole side up, and fill the pot with water until it’s about ¼ of an inch away from the top of the can. Now crank up the heat and boil for the next 3-4 hours. Checking on the water level every forty-five minutes or so. Remove from the heat when finished and allow to cool for several hours before opening (see reason above).
Number 4: The Oven Method
1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk
Preheat your oven to 440℉/225℃ and bring a large kettle of water to a boil.
In a shallow baking dish pour in the sweetened condensed milk and cover the dish with aluminum foil, being sure to seal the edges. Place your milk filled baking dish in a large roasting pan, set them both on the oven rack. Pour the now boiling water into the roasting pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the smaller baking dish. Bake for two hours for a nice thick dark Dulce de Leche. Depending on your intended purposes for the dulce, feel free to play around with the time, baking it until you achieve the color and texture you’re after.
Number 5: The Pressure Cooker Method
1 can of Sweetened Condensed Milk
Place your can(s) on their sides in the bottom of your pressure cooker and pour in cold water, enough to cover them by about an inch. Seal the lid and turn your cooker on high until it begins to whistle (the signal that it has reached pressure) then turn it down slightly making sure it’s still high enough for the pressure cooker to maintain its pressure. Cook for forty minutes, then turn off the cooker and open the valve to allow the steam to escape and the pressure to release. When the cooker unlocks remove the lid and using tongs remove the cans and allow to cool undisturbed for several hours.
Dulce de Leche can be kept well-sealed in the refrigerator for three weeks to a month. And there are some who say that if kept sealed in the can as with the pressure cooker or closed-can methods, can be kept for years and years with no effect on either flavor or color.
The truth of this statement remains unknown as no Dulce de Leche in the history of the world has ever survived longer than a week.