Dulce de leche: all you need is a pan and boiling water
Long before we came across the term dulce de leche, Speedy and I had been boiling sweetened condensed milk in its unopened can to transform the milk into a thick caramel. We’d spoon the caramel and just eat it like that. So indulgent. So delicious. This was around the time that Sam was a little over a year old and I was pregnant with Alex. Aside from making caramel and it with cream when making fruit salad, we really didn’t have many uses for mixing sweetened condensed milk. In short, I never really learned about the differences in terms of brands. We’ve never been choosy with brands when making caramel in the past and you can just imagine my surprise when, one day, the mixing sweetened condensed milk did not transform into a thick caramel even after two hours of simmering in water.
When I made the salted caramel cake, I mentioned this issue about not being able to make homemade dulce de leche anymore — the milk (we usually buy Alaska) just refused to caramelize! Reader Nina commented that “Alaska is sweetened condensed ‘filled’ milk – made of vegetable oil from coconuts… This maybe the reason you are not getting good results.”
I took Nina’s recommendation, bought two cans of Milkmaid sweetened condensed milk, put them in pot, poured in enough water to fully submerge them then I let the water boil. The moment the water was boiling, I lowered the heat, covered the pot and let the water simmer for an hour and a half. And, voila! Dulce de leche. Thank you, Nina. Thank you indeed.
Note that these photos were taken some 24 hours later. After simmering the cans of milk, I removed them from the hot water and let them cool to room temperature. Then, I put them inside the fridge. That’s why the caramel is that thick. If allowed to warm to room temperature, the caramel would be thinner and almost pourable.
Why not enjoy the dulce de leche right after simmering? For one, you’ll burn your hand holding the hot can to open it. Second, the very hot caramel will ooze out once you open the can. Even after letting the can sit on the counter for an hour, for as long as the caramel inside is still quite hot, it will ooze out once the can is punctured. We’ve tried that in the past, those times when we just couldn’t wait, and the result was a mess.
Now, the famous legend that has given dulce de leche the nickname “Dangerous Pudding” when cooked this way. I’m referring to the claims that boiling the unopened can of milk can make it burst and cause a bad kitchen accident and human injuries. The truth is, everyone who has relayed the “danger” to me are people who have never even tried making dulce de leche this way. In fact, I’ve never heard nor read a first hand account of a can of condensed milk exploding while simmering in water.
So, if you want to try and make dulce de leche the easy way, here are a few things to ensure that your dulce de leche making is hazard free:
1. Use a deep pot so that the cans are fully submerged in water. Ideally, the water level should be an inch higher than the cans. And, incidentally, you don’t need to stand the cans upright inside the pot. I put them in sideways so that they can roll and move around during cooking.
2. Use a heavy lid for the pot that fits snugly to avoid as much evaporation as possible. And just in case something goes wrong, a heavy lid can absorb a lot of the impact if the can should explode.
3. Check the water level every twenty minutes or so. Add more water if the water level becomes lower than the height of the cans.
And just how long does the can of milk have to simmer in water before the milk turns to caramel? An hour and a half is fine with me. Some cooks swear by two to three hours. See, the longer the simmering, the thicker the caramel. So, it’s really up to you. As a guide, the dulce de leche in the photos above resulted from an hour and a half of simmering.