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.