What Is Dulce de Leche? Everything You Need to Know About the Sweet Confection

Caramel lovers, come forth

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Odds are you’re very familiar with caramel, since its sticky-sweet splendor graces everything from ice cream to brownies to broiled fruit nowadays. But what is dulce de leche? It’s about time you became acquainted with this unbelievably creamy, caramel-like confection that hails from Latin America. Read on for everything there is to know about dulce de leche, plus some of our favorite ways to use it at home (ya know, besides eating it straight from the can).

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what is dulce de leche: two glasses filled with dulce de leche, with a bowl of dulce de leche and a pitcher of milk in the background
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What Is Dulce de Leche?

Dulce de leche, translating to “sweet of milk” in Spanish, is a thick, creamy, caramel-like sweet. It has a spreadable consistency that’s noticeably thicker than drizzle-ready caramel sauce, so it’s often used as a topping or filling for foods like wafer cookies, churros and cakes. It can be found all over South America and the Caribbean, but it’s particularly popular in Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Peru and Chile, where it’s called manjar or manjar blanco, meaning “delicacy” and “white delicacy”. In Colombia, it’s called arequipe.

Also known as caramelized milk and milk jam in English, dulce de leche is made by slowly simmering milk and sugar together and stirring nonstop until the mixture browns. Some recipes also include vanilla bean seeds or vanilla extract, as well as baking soda, which speeds cooking and prevents the mixture from turning bitter. As it heats, most of the liquid in the milk evaporates, creating a thicker consistency. The sweet milk caramelizes and deepens in color, a result of the Maillard reaction (aka a chemical reaction that creates flavorful browning on food, whether it’s a seared steak or toasted marshmallow).

Since the old-school method of making dulce de leche is a time-consuming labor of love, many home cooks use sweetened condensed milk as a shortcut (yup, the same stuff that makes Vietnamese iced coffee so delicious and three-ingredient no-churn ice cream possible). It still takes about two to three hours of simmering to turn it into dulce de leche (or less than an hour in the Instant Pot), but you won’t need to stir it since it cooks right in the can while submerged in water.

The most effortless alternative is canned dulce de leche, which is already caramelized and ready to eat. As long as the ingredients include real sugar instead of corn syrup, it’ll be just as delectable as if you made it from scratch.

what is dulce de leche: spoonful of dulce de leche resting atop an open jar of dulce de leche
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How Was Dulce de Leche Invented?

There are a variety of theories. Many sources trace this delicacy back to 19th-century Argentina. Legend has it that a maid who worked for politician Juan Manuel de Rosas was cooking milk and sugar and got called away from the stove, only to return some time later to find that her concoction had reduced into a thick brown spread. (It turns out that the first historical reference to dulce de leche on record is in the notes from a meeting between de Rosas and a political enemy, which is pretty solid supporting evidence in our book.)

Another story credits Napoleon Bonaparte’s chef with the happy accident. Contrarily, an account from historian Daniel Balmaceda says dulce de leche was invented even earlier in 16th-century Indonesia. The theory is that the confection made its way to the Philippines and Spanish colonizers brought it back to Spain and the Americas.

what is dulce de leche: four long pieces of leche quemada on a red plate
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Other Types of Dulce de Leche

First, let’s discuss the difference between dulce de leche, caramel and butterscotch. Caramel is pure sugar (or sugar and water) cooked down until it browns and thickens. Butterscotch is prepared the same way, but from butter and brown sugar. Dulce de leche is made from milk and sugar, but its brown color is a result of caramelized dairy, rather than caramelized sugar (though it can also be made with coconut milk instead of dairy, as is done in Puerto Rico).

There’s also dulce de leche cortada, or miguelucho, which is made with curdled milk to create individual caramelized curds instead of a homogenous spread. It’s particularly popular in Cuba, as well as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. While the dish is thought to have originated from a need to use up spoiled milk, many recipes call for adding something acidic to fresh milk (like lemon juice) to curdle it. It’s often also flavored with egg and cinnamon and served with raisins.

Cajeta is another type of dulce de leche made from goat milk that’s especially common in Mexico. It has a distinct earthy, almost grassy flavor, but the same appearance and texture as cow’s milk dulce de leche. Also in Mexico is a dulce de leche-like candy called leche quemada, meaning burned milk. Its main ingredients are milk, sugar and butter, which are cooked down until fudge-like.

what is dulce de leche: hands filling alfajores cookies with dulce de leche
Kristina Strasunske/Getty Images

Ways to Use Dulce de Leche

As long as you can keep yourself from inhaling the whole can in one sitting, there are countless ways to use this decadent confection. Its most common uses are as a filling or spread, but it can also become thinner and more sauce-like when heated.

Traditional ways to use dulce de leche include alfajores, delicate Argentinian sandwich cookies; piononos, a Puerto Rican rolled sponge cake filled with jelly or dulce de leche, and postre chajá, a layered meringue cake from Uruguay. Dulce de leche is commonly eaten on toast for breakfast in some Latin countries as well. You may even see it as the crowning glory on milk-soaked tres leches cake, which some Latin bakeries refer to as cuatro leches.

If you just want to riff on some of your favorite baked goods and throw authenticity out the window, that works too. Slather it on crepes, cakes, waffles, wafers, cookies and brownies, use it as a filling for churros, add a dollop to bananas or yogurt or warm it up to drizzle over ice cream.

what is dulce de leche: dulce de leche skillet brownie with a spoon in the center removing a scoop
Katherine Gillen

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...