Dulce de leche is a thick, rich caramel sauce made from one ingredient — sweetened condensed milk. Caramel is usually a molten combination of sugar and cream with other flavorings added, but this classic Spanish confection dispenses with those steps and goes straight for the sweet caramel reward — making dulce de leche in a can. It’s sweet and lush and utterly irresistible. I’ll show you how to make dulce de leche from condensed milk three different ways. In the oven, on the stovetop and in a sealed can in the Instant Pot. Homemade dulce de leche is easy and ah-mazing.
One critical step for dulce de leche in a can
There’s no right or wrong way to make this homemade caramel, however if you’re making dulce de leche in a can, there is one crucial step you need to follow… Remove the paper wrapper and any sticky glue that remains.
Why so picky about the wrapper?
It’s really about the cleanup. If there’s bits of paper wrapper stuck to the can of sweetened condensed milk, you can be sure that during the cooking process, the sticky residue is going to leach into your pan or instant pot, leaving a weird, tacky film. After spending the better part of 15 minutes (and a half cup of Barkeepers Friend cleanser) scrubbing the inside of my pan with a scrubber sponge, I realized my mistake and I don’t want you to make it. (You can see by the photo below that I opened my first can before removing the paper and adhesive… dumb, dumb, dumb…)
- Remove the paper wrapper.
- Spray the sticky remains with Goo Gone or another adhesive remover and rub it clean.
- Wash the can with soap and water.
Stovetop dulce de leche
Now, let me show you how to make dulce de leche from condensed milk. The first method is made on the stovetop.
- After washing the can, open the lid so that it’s still got a hinge of metal attached. Crack the lid, so you have about a 30° angle from horizontal.
- Place a small dishrag in the bottom of a small saucepan (the dishrag is to prevent the can from clanging on the bottom of the pan as it cooks – because that can be annoying for 2-3 hours.)
- Fill the pan with enough water to reach about 3/4 of the way up the side of the can. (Careful not to get water in the sweetened condensed milk.
- Bring the water to a simmer and cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, refilling the water every 15-20 minutes or so to keep it at the same level you started with.
- Over 2-3 hours, the sweetened condensed milk will transform into a golden caramel. The longer it cooks, the deeper the caramel color and thicker the resulting caramel.
- The top of the caramel may not look as if it’s changed much, but stir it with a spoon and you’ll see a definite transformation.
- Use a pair of tongs to carefully remove the caramel from the water bath and let cool at room temperature before transferring to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerating.
- Note: caramel will also thicken as it cools as well as after it has been refrigerated.
Variation on the stovetop method
Use a sealed can. That’s right. You can make dulce de leche in a can without opening it! If it’s your first time, you might want to start with the first method, so you’re comfortable with the process, but after that — this is a little easier and has the bonus of not needing to be refrigerated.
- Place a cleaned, sealed can into a pot (with the dish rag to prevent the clanging) and cover completely with about 1″ of water.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a rapid simmer and cook for 2-3 hours, adding water so that it’s always covered.
- Remove the can with a pair of tongs and let it cool to room temperature.
- Since the can is sealed, there’s no need to refrigerate it. You can store it in your pantry and open when you need it.
What sweetened condensed milk caramel looks and tastes like
The photo above is what the caramel looks like after refrigerating. You can see it’s thick and smooth. The flavor is rich and sweet, with an almost chewy consistency. Personally, I don’t think it has as much nuance or depth as a standard caramel sauce, but it does hit every part of your palate with an almost buttery sweetness that’s overtly decadent.
Transforming condensed milk into dulce de leche in the oven
This method came from the epicurious website and I thought initially that it would be the easiest way to go, but there were a few snags, which I’ll get to in a minute.
The sweetened condensed milk caramel with the oven method
- Preheat the oven to 425°.
- Empty the can of sweetened condensed milk into a 9″ deep dish ceramic or glass pie dish.
- Cover the pie dish tightly with aluminum foil.
- Place the pie dish into a larger roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with hot water until it comes about halfway up the pie plate.
- Cook for 2 hours. Carefully remove the pie dish carefully from the water and let cool to room temperature.
My issues with the oven method
The first issue I ran into was finding a roasting pan large enough to accommodate a 9″ pie dish. My standard roasters (even an oval one that I thought was a shoe-in) were too small. It would have fit into a turkey roaster, but I thought that was overkill. I ended up using a 12″ paella pan. If you’re kitchen isn’t as well stocked, you might have a problem here.
The second problem was that after two hours, the homemade dulce de leche caramel wasn’t quite as dark or thick as I would like it. I ended up putting it back in the oven for another 45 minutes, which seemed to do the trick. The images above show the difference. Top left is after 2 hours. Bottom left and right are after 2 hours 45 minutes. I think it needed the extra time — at least for my sensibilities.
Using the Instant Pot for homemade dulce de leche in a sealed can
I read many posts from bloggers who mentioned that you could theoretically make sweetened condensed milk caramel in a sealed can, but none who’d actually had the nerve to do it. Well, I’m nothing if not ballsy. Here’s how it went.
Instant Pot Dulce De Leche
- Make sure you clean that can well — and remove the sticky, gluey residue.
- Lay a small dish towel in the bottom of the pressure cooker (to prevent clanging and denting the Instant Pot.
- Place the unopened can of sweetened condensed milk on the towel on its side and fill with water up to the maximum fill line. (Water should cover the can by about 1 to 2 inches).
- Seal the pressure cooker and bring to high pressure for 40 minutes.
- Let the pressure naturally release, then remove the can, dry it off and let it cool to room temperature before opening.
- Can be stored directly in the pantry until you’re ready to use.
The easiest method for making homemade dulce de leche
The Instant Pot was by far the easiest way to transform sweetened condensed milk into caramel. Not only was it very hands-off, which I loved, the dulce was uber rich and thick.
Several Instant Pot recipes claimed that the caramel could be ready in as little as 15-20 minutes, but after my first two attempts, I knew a longer cooking time was required for the concentration of flavor and pudgy consistency I like. If you want a looser caramel sauce, try it for 20 minutes.
I thought it was a real boon to be able to put the jar directly back into the pantry for storage too… How handy!
How to use dulce de leche caramel
- Imagine, someone pops over unexpected at the holidays and you’ve got nothing to offer… Just whip out a can of your homemade dulce de leche and slice some fresh apples or pears for dunking.
- Or jazz up a dish of ice cream with slightly warmed caramel spooned over the top.
- Heck, you could even stick a bow on top of the can and give them away as fun hostess gifts. How simple is THAT?
More uses for dulce de leche
- Swirled into cheesecake batter before baking.
- Warmed and drizzled over pound cake.
- Rim a cocktail glass for a caramel appletini.
- Warmed and drizzled over apple pie.
- Spooned over Autumn Spiced Baked Pears
- As a filling for sandwich cookies.
4 Ways To Make Homemade Dulce De Leche
- 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
REMOVING THE LABEL FOR INSTANT POT OR STOVETOP METHODS:
- Remove the label from the sealed can of sweetened condensed milk. Spray the sticky adhesive on the can with Goo Gone or other residue removing product and let it sit for 5 minutes. Use a paper towel to rub away any remaining adhesive, be sure to remove it all. Wash the can with soap and water and run your fingers around the can to make sure you've gotten all the adhesive off of the can.
- Remove the label as directed above. Use a can opener to open the sweetened condensed milk about 90% open. Arrange the lid so that it's raised about 30° from horizontal. Place a small 5 or 6 inch rag or old dishtowel in the bottom of a small saucepan. Place the can on top of the rag so that it's even in the pan and doesn't wobble. Fill the pan with water so that it reaches about 3/4 way up the can. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium simmer.
- Cook the sweetened condensed milk for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding more water every 15-20 minutes to maintain the same level of water in the saucepan, so that it's always reaching about 3/4 of the way up the can. (The top of the condensed milk may not change colors as it cooks, but underneath that top layer, it is gently cooking.)
- Hold a pair of tongs in one hand and a dry dish towel in the other. Carefully lift the can of dulce de leche with the tongs and quickly place the dishtowel under the can to support it. Place the can on the counter and let it cool for a few minutes until you can safely touch the top of the can. When it's cool, lift the lid to vertical and use a spoon to stir the contents of the can until it's well blended. It's very hot and almost molten after it's done cooking, so don't just lick the spoon immediately — or you'll get burned.
- Transfer the dulce de leche to an airtight storage container and refrigerate until ready to use.
INSTANT POT METHOD:
- Remove the label as directed above. Place a small dish towel in the bottom of the Instant Pot. Place the can on top of the towel on it's side, not sitting up. Add cold water to the Instant pot until it covers the can by one inch. Be sure not to fill the pot higher than the Maximum allowable level.
- Seal the lid onto the Instant Pot and pressure cook on high for 40 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally.
- Remove the can from the water with a pair of tongs and set aside to cool to room temperature. When you're ready to use the Dulce de leche, open the can. Note: it doesn't need to be refrigerated until the can is opened. It will last for months like this.
- Preheat the oven to 425°. Transfer the sweetened condensed milk to a 9" deep dish pie plate (glass or ceramic) and cover tightly with tin foil.
- Place the pie plate in a larger roasting pan with high sides. Add hot water to the roasting pan being particularly careful not to splash water on the foil or into the sweetened condensed milk. Tuck the ends of the foil up tightly under the rim of the pan so that the foil doesn't rest in the water.
- Bake in the water bath for 2 hours. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and set aside. When the water in the pan has cooled enough to handle, remove the pie plate from the water bath. Discard the tin foil and use a whisk to stir the dulce de leche until it's creamy and smooth. Transfer to a glass jar or other well sealed container. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.