The Dulce de Leche Cook-off: Part 1

Dulce de leche was one of the first foreign foods that I fell in love with. It is ubiquitous in Argentina, the first foreign country I lived in. Translated to “milk’s candy” in English, it’s used in cookies and candies, as a spread for toast, as a filling for desserts, an accompaniment to fruit, an ice cream flavor…the list could go on and on. It was also super common in Paraguay, where I served in the Peace Corps for two years, so common that it was one of the items I could purchase at any corner store in my town of 500 people. And there are versions of it throughout all of Latin America used widely in regional dishes.

And yet when I decided to learn to make alfajores, an Argentine cookie that has a dulce de leche filling, three supermarkets in my neighborhood in New York City didn’t have it. This isn’t to say that it can’t be found here or even that it’s difficult – in fact, I am sure that it’s a matter of looking in all the wrong places – but it was a wake up call that not every grocery store carries it. So I decided to make it myself, because maybe your store doesn’t have it either. I knew I’d learn something along the way (and boy, is that an understatement) so join me on this dulce de leche cook-off, won’t you?

Dulce de leche is what you get if you caramelize milk and sugar together. Some of the liquid evaporates, it becomes sweeter, and turns a lovely brown shade. It’s similar to caramel, but creamier with its milk base.

There is not consensus about its origins. Most people credit Argentina and Uruguay as its place of origin. Argentina even applied to UNESCO for the designation of dulce de leche as Argentinian cultural heritage, but were denied because Uruguayans argued that it belonged to both countries as a regional speciality. There are stories from different corners of the globe about a forgotten pot of milk boiling on the stove and turning into ducle de leche – in my opinion, entirely possible that this could have happened in different places around the world (who hasn’t accidentally left something cooking at least once in their lives?) There’s even one theory that it came from Indonesia, migrated to the Philippines and then to Spain after colonization, and then to the Spanish colonies. Which one is true? No idea. And no matter what the origins, dulce de leche is an important part of the culture in Argentina and its neighbors today. And, of course, it’s deliciously addictive!

Sources: A Brief History of Dulce de Leche, Your Guide to Dulce de Leche, The Story Behind Dulce de Leche, Cooking the Classics: Dulce de Leche, Alfajores, Homemade Dulce de Leche

There is also not consensus on how to make dulce de leche at home, but there are a lot of strong opinions! I’ve seen at least three variations: the original, where you heat milk, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda together, stirring constantly for about an hour and half; an oven version, where you heat sweetened condensed milk in the oven; and the boiled can version, where you literally boil a can of sweetened condensed milk in water. I’ve also heard that you can speed up the third version by doing it in an Instant Pot. I decided to do a test run to see how these different methods worked in action!

Sweetened condensed milk in a can

I was recently gifted an Instant Pot (yay!) but I’m still waiting for it to arrive (sigh, 2020 shipping delays) So I tested out the oven and stovetop methods, leaving the original and Instant Pot for round two of this dulce de leche cookoff (coming soon).

The Oven Method

In both of these methods, you start with a can of sweetened condensed milk which, if we’re being honest, is halfway there to being dulce de leche already. It’s quite sweet and thickened. For the oven method, you open the can and empty it into an oven safe pan. A 9″ round pie dish was recommended but I didn’t have one, so I used the closest size I had. You cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and put it inside a larger roasting pan, filling the larger pan halfway with water. Then you cook it at 425˚ for 1 hour and 30 minutes, checking the water level halfway through and refilling as needed.

Top: emptying the sweetened condensed milk into an oven-safe dish. Bottom: sealing it with foil and adding it with some water with an old roasting pan.

My thoughts: I wasn’t worried about the milk in the oven as compared to the boiled can. But the mixture was not ready at the time recommended in the recipe – it hadn’t caramelized, some of it was still white. I returned it to the oven for another 30 minutes which was somewhat better. But the texture was grainy and just not that smooth, spreadable texture that you expect from dulce de leche. I am wondering where exactly I went wrong – did I seal it poorly? Add too much water? Not enough? Or is it the fact that my apartment oven is crappy? The recipe was not easy to execute and I didn’t end up with something I’d call good dulce de leche.

This is what I produced after 2 hours in the oven.

The Boiled Can Method

For the stovetop method, you also start with a can of sweetened condensed milk, but don’t open it. Instead, take any labels off the can. Use a pot large enough that you can leave the can on its side, covered in water. Fill the pot, bring the water to a boil, place your can of sweetened condensed milk on its side, and let it boil for 3 hours and 15 minutes. This is really important: the can MUST remain below the water line at all times, or you risk it exploding. Check in on your pot regularly to make sure the can is still below the water line and add more water if not. After 3 hours and 15 minutes, remove from heat and remove the can with tongs and let cool. Open it, and voilá! You have dulce de leche with almost no effort.

This is the absolute minimum water level, but as you can see I’m using a big pot and I filled it much higher than the minimum to ensure the can remained completely submerged. It didn’t explode!

My thoughts: The recipe was easy enough to execute – all you need to do is a boil a can for a long time. That’s it. And it worked! The texture was great and it tasted like dulce de leche. However, the fear of the can exploding made this recipe stressful. You need to check on it often or you risk not just ruining your recipe but hurting yourself or others if something were to happen. I choose the deepest pot I had and filled it as high as I could and added more water every 30 minutes (paranoid, but can you blame me?) Now that I’ve done it successfully, I’d probably do it again, but you really do need to be mindful. I’m interested to see how the taste compares to the original method.

Here are the two versions side by side:

On the left is the boiled can version and on the right is the oven version.

And the winner of round 1 is the boiled can! I mean look at that photo, it’s pretty clear. Now excuse me while I spread this on some cookies or toast and think about round 2 and all the ways I can eat this dulce de leche, including right out of the bowl with a spoon.

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