How Are Dulce de Leche & Caramel Different? (With 3 Recipes!)

dulce de leche 3 ways to make

Written by Kim Caviness, Co-founder and Editor in Chief, Familia Kitchen

Dulce de leche and caramel keep popping up in recipes for our favorite Latino sweet treats, including chocoflan and this flan mixto from Argentina. Or eat it solo—on toast or straight from the jar by the cucharada.

Dulce de leche and caramel are often confused. For so many good reasons: The sauces look alike. They are soft and swirly. They taste similarly toasted-sugary.

But they are different. Dulce de leche is silkier, softer brown, and made with sugar and (like its name says) milk. Dulce de leche is made with cow’s milk. When goat milk is used, it’s called cajeta.

Caramel is usually denser and darker brown, made with just sugar and water (no milk!).

Here’s another slight difference: Dulce de leche usually is spooned on desserts or with bread, while caramel tends to be used in the baking of another traditional dessert. A common use of caramel is in flan—like this classic “flancito” from Panama, Marisa’s family-famous flan from Puerto Rico, and even this traditional Mexican version served by Frida Kahlo in her home, La Casa Azul.

Both dulce and caramel are popular in Latino cuisine, so honestly you can’t go wrong with either. But today, we are spotlighting dulce de leche and how to make it.

3 Ways to Make Dulce de Luche

Let’s look at 3 ways to make dulce de leche for your dessert and snacking needs, ranging from easy to medium to hard-ish, mostly due to the amount of time required to stir and check that the dulce is not burning.

And may we add one more: the super-easiest way of all? Buy a jar of dulce de leche from your local grocery store. Most are (honestly) not bad! Lots of abuela cocineras and excellent Latino cooks we know used premade dulce de leche in their baking. If this is you: feel no guilt—we admire you for using your cocina time wisely, and buen provecho.

Dulce de leche on desserts
Dulce de leche is made from milk (unlike caramel) and is often drizzled over traditional desserts.

That said, it truly is worth the effort: Your dulce de leche will be that much more creamy, lush and delicioso if you make it from scratch. Plus: it keeps for at least three weeks in your fridge.

Ready to whip up a batch of this sauce—but not sure how to start? Below are 3 ways to make traditional dulce de leche. Your family and friends will thank you.

How to Make Dulce de Leche: Easy, Medium & Hard-ish Recipes

3 Ways to Make Dulce de Leche

4 from 10 votes
Recipe by Abuelas Cocineras We Know and Love Cuisine: Everywhere Latino
Servings

4 to 6

servings
Prep time

5

minutes
Cooking time

1

hour 

30

minutes

Ingredient

  • For Easy and Medium—Using Condensed Milk
  • 14 oz 14 sweetened condensed milk

  • For Hard-ish—Traditional Stovetop
  • 4 cups 4 whole milk

  • 1 1/2 cups 1 1/2 sugar

  • 1/2 tsp 1/2 baking soda

  • 1 tsp 1 vanilla extract

Directions

  • Dulce de Leche the EASY Way
  • Pour the can of sweetened condensed milk into a pressure cooker.
  • Cook for 20 minutes.
  • Pour the cooked milk into a container (glass is nice: you can see its pretty color) and let it cool.
  • You have dulce de leche!
  • Dulce de Leche the MEDIUM Way
  • Preheat your oven to 450°.
  • Place a baking pan filled with 2 to 3 cups of water in the oven. (This is called a water bath or baño Maria.)
  • Pour the contents of one 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk into a metal bowl or flanera with tall sides. Cover tightly with tin foil.
  • Place the bowl in the water bath. The water should reach no higher than halfway up the sides of the bowl, so it doesn’t spill in or overcook the milk.
  • Bake for 1 hour. Check to see if you need to add hot water to the larger pan so that the water still reaches halfway up the bowl.
  • Bake for 1 more hour, for a total of 2.
  • Remove from the oven and let it cool.
  • You have dulce de leche!
  • Dulce de Leche the HARD-ish way (from Scratch)
  • Place a saucepan on the stovetop, set to medium high.
  • Add the milk, sugar and baking soda. Stir together.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low.
  • Let it simmer uncovered for 1 hour. Keep an eye on it, stirring semi-regularly.
  • After 1 hour of cooking, check the pan and give it a good stir.
  • Simmer for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring regularly to make sure the bottom layer doesn’t burn.
  • When the milk starts to caramelize and thicken, stir in the vanilla extract.
  • Simmer for 5 more minutes.
  • Transfer to a bowl to cool.
  • You have dulce de leche!

Notes

  • Place your dulce de leche in a tightly covered container in your fridge. It will last for 3 to 4 weeks—if your family doesn’t find it first.

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