Dolce de Leche (Carmel Sauce)

a tin of dolce de leche to show how thick you can make it.

It’s truly inspiring to see a resurgence in the trend of making food from scratch. Reflecting on my childhood, there was a time when I feared the art of cooking and baking might dwindle into obscurity. Perhaps it was watching my Nan create culinary wonders from simple ingredients while my Mum, like many others at the time, turned to the convenience of packaged meals, boxes of cake mixes, and canned goods. These items became staples in households where time was scarce, especially as more mums joined the workforce. They were a modern solution to the age-old question of how to feed a family with limited time.

I have to confess that I have made Dulce de Leche from scratch. Yes, you heard it right. I mean, I started with whole, full-fat milk, white sugar, baking soda, pure cream (or cream with a decent fat content), vanilla, and a pinch of salt. It might sound simple, but it actually takes a long time. Why, you ask? Well, its because you have to boil down the milk and cream into a syrup, and then continue cooking it until it becomes a thick and creamy caramel. This whole process requires maintaining a constant temperature and stirring constantly.

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There are loads of recipes out there that shorten the time by using brown sugar, but it’s not quite the same. It’s faster on the stovetop than in a Thermomix. But on the stovetop, you have to keep stirring it to prevent it from catching on the bottom of the pot or boiling over. In a Thermomix you don’t have to stir because the Thermomix is clever that way (it will stir for you), but it will take longer (chronologically) to reduce.

So, I don’t mind that you know me as a lazy chef, I prefer to take a tin of sweetened condensed milk, submerge the whole tin in a pot of simmering water and leave it there simmering away for at least 2 – 3 hours.

Ingredient list on a tin of sweetened condensed milk.

Oh, before we get into how to make it in the tin, you can also make it in your oven. For instance, if you’re slow cooking a roast it’s the perfect time to pour the contents of your sweetened condensed milk tin into an oven-safe container, sit that container in a water bath then bake it with a baking paper-lined foil cap or lid, just remove it when it’s the colour you’re looking for. May as well get the most out of your oven while it’s on. 🙃 That sounds really easy, doesn’t it? No mess, no fuss but let me tell you where you can go wrong, and people do. Let’s face it, sometime it’s only by experience that we learn.

Making Dulce de Leche in the can involves simmering a sealed (undamaged) tin of sweetened condensed milk, placed on its side, in a large heavy pot filled with water that covers the tin.

Here are the rules to minimize risk:

Note – There is a risk of cans rupturing or exploding when re-heated, with the following advice intended to minimize the risks asscoaited with this activity.

  1. Choose the Right Can: Use a tin of sweetened condensed milk without any dents or damage. Pressure will build up in the tin and you don’t want any weak spots in your tin.
  2. Remove the Label: Peel off the paper label from the can to prevent any mess in your pot. Sometimes the label can stick to the pot, we don’t want to clean it off later if we don’t have to right!
  3. Cover with Water: Place the can on its side in a large, deep pot and fill it with enough water to fully submerge the can by at least 5 cm (2 inches) to ensure even heating and prevent the can from exploding because the heat is different inside from top to bottom.
  4. Bring to a Simmer: Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Once it starts bubbling, lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. This prevents the can from being subjected to excessive heat, which could cause it to burst. There should be a little movement in the pan but not much. Start counting the hours when you reach this point, not from when you first turn the heat on.
  5. Cook Time: For a thicker Dulce de Leche, simmer for at least 2 to 3 hours. A shorter simmering time will result in a lighter, softer Dulce de Leche, while a longer time will make it thicker and darker. Always ensure the can remains fully submerged by adding more water as necessary. Having a lid on it helps with this but you still need to keep checking it.
  6. Monitor the Water Level: Yep I’m repeating myself. Check the pot occasionally to ensure the water level remains well above the can. Add more boiling water as needed to keep the can submerged. If you don’t do this, heat inside the tin will be uneven and it may not turn out as you expect.
  7. Turn Off the Heat and Let it Cool: Once the cooking time is complete, turn off the heat and let the can cool in the water to room temperature. This cooling process helps prevent the hot Dulce de Leche from erupting when the can is opened due to the pressure inside.
  8. Open Carefully: Only open the can once it is completely cool to the touch to avoid any risk of burns from the hot contents. I tend to leave mine till the next day. I simmer the can for 3 hours, (because I like it thicker and darker) and leave it in the pot to cool during the day then pop it in the fridge when it’s completely cold and open it the next day or later when you need it.
  9. Storage: If you don’t use all your Dulce de Leche on the same day, remove it from the tin into an airtight container or jar and store it in the refrigerator. Use it within 3 weeks. Ensure the container is airtight to minimize the risk of contamination and preserve its quality.

Futher Safety Tips:

  • Consider safety glasses when inspecting the simmering pot.
  • Never attempt to open the can while it is still hot.
  • Do not let the water evaporate to a point where the can is exposed to air, as this could increase the risk of the can exploding.
  • It’s better not to touch the hot can, you can use tongs to remove it from the hot water if you need to use the pot for something else but I’d just leave it there until it’s cold.

Tips for Maximizing Shelf Life:

  1. Cool Properly: Allow the Dulce de Leche to cool to room temperature before refrigerating to prevent condensation from forming inside the container.
  2. Use Clean Containers: Rather than leave any leftovers in the tin transfer the Dulce de Leche to a clean, airtight container to avoid introducing bacteria and ensure a longer shelf life. I keep old jars for this.
  3. Check for Signs of Spoilage: Before using stored Dulce de Leche, check for any signs of spoilage, such as an off smell, mould, or unusual texture. If in doubt, chuck it out. 😉😊

PS – Some of you might have strong feelings about referring to this recipe as “caramel sauce.” That’s completely understandable. The final consistency of this delightful concoction can vary significantly based on how long you cook it. If cooked for a shorter duration, it will result in a thin, pourable sauce perfect for drizzling. On the other hand, extending the cooking time yields a thicker texture that’s ideal for use as a pie or biscuit filling, or a rich spread. The versatility of this recipe allows you to adjust it according to your preference, from a silky sauce to a sumptuous filling.


    1. I have no problem with you sharing Peta, I do see this comment. in the post. “If you’ve got one of those fancy timed slow-cookers, set on low temperature (this is usually around 95 °C) for anywhere between 8-10 hours”. So that’s what you would probably need to make this work 95°C. I guess there’s some testing that needs to be done out there. Shame 😉😂

  1. I’m not sure Bec. I would think they were the kind where you needed a can opener. It was at least 25 years ago.

  2. Pressure cooker for 1 hour. Works every time. I used to do it a lot when the kids were little, but haven’t done it in years. That was a stove top pressure cooker. That thing scared me more than the potentially exploding can of condensed milk. 😂

    1. Hey Verena,
      Did the tins you mentioned have ring pull tops or tops that require a can opener? I understand the concern about pressure cookers exploding 😉; I’ve witnessed incidents where the sealings had had food plastered to them because of mishaps. Thank goodness noone was hurt.

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