Dulce de leche, in case you don’t know, is a sweet, creamy caramel spread, one of the staples of the Argentine pantry. If cheese is milk’s leap into immortality, dulce de leche is its plunge into decadence. It’s gorgeous, glossy, and tawny; it makes everything more delicious.
The best part? It’s easy—insanely easy—to make. You don’t need any special equipment; no candy thermometers or silpat baking mats. There’s no mise en place. It’s one ingredient, one step. This makes homemade dulce de leche a perfect addition to quarantine cuisine. It makes use of something that might already be gathering dust in the back of a cupboard. It requires minimal skill. And the ratio of pleasure received to effort expended is astronomical.
When New York first shut down in March, I had kitchen ambitions. If I was going to be quarantined inside, I would make the best of it: I would bake complicated multi-layered cakes, roll out my own pie crusts, become a sourdough witch with a bubbling mason jar of starter. But it’s been nearly two months, and honestly, I’m exhausted. Every day has the same lusterless, featureless quality, yet it’s also uniquely terrifying. Therapy baking has its limits. The body yearns for easy treats, for sweetness without struggle. And to make dulce de leche, you only need to know one thing: how to boil water.
This isn’t going to be one of those essays where you’re forced to read a long preamble before getting to the recipe. I’ll give you the goods right away:
Take a can of sweetened condensed milk. Peel off the label. Get the biggest pot you have, fill it with water, and plop in the unopened can. Set it on the stove, turn up the heat, and let it simmer for three to four hours. Remove from heat. Let the can cool.
A one-step recipe is basically as close as you can get to magic. It’s not a miracle, it’s the Maillard reaction, that crucial bit of kitchen chemistry that transforms that which is pale and insipid into that which is complex, toasty, and indulgent. As the can of sweetened condensed milk heats up, an intricate molecular choreography takes place inside: sugars and amino acids swoon together and burst apart in an explosive Maillard tango that culminates in an extravaganza of brown, nutty, creamy, and caramel flavors.
There’s only one thing you need to watch out for: make sure that the can stays submerged, so that it cooks through evenly and gently at around 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling point of water), and to avoid the risk of explosion if the can heats up beyond that. You’ll want to top off the pot intermittently with more water (this is why you should use your biggest pot). A good way to do this is to sync your dulce de leche making with a binge-watching session, adding water between episodes.
But don’t worry about it too much. While making dulce de leche for this article, my attention drifted around hour three, and the whole thing completely slipped my mind. The can ended up bubbling away for more than five hours. It still turned out perfectly!
Indeed, one of the legends of dulce de leche attributes its origin to fortuitous neglect. According to lore, during 1829 peace talks between rival factions in Argentina’s civil war, one general’s cook left a pot of sweetened milk simmering on the fire. She came back to find it gunked up into brown goo. But to her astonishment, it was delicious. Dulce de leche came into the world at the same time as Argentina became a unified country, cementing its place at the heart of national cuisine.
Argentine historian Daniel Balmaceda has thoroughly debunked this myth. He traces dulce de leche to medieval Indonesia and then to the Philippines, where Spanish colonizers first encountered it. The Spanish colonial regime brought dulce de leche to Central America in the 18th century, and the sweet delicacy made its way south under different names: as cajeta in Mexico (where it’s made with goat’s milk); arequipe in Colombia; ñukñu among Quechua speakers in Peru; and manjar blanco in Chile. Not only did Argentines not invent dulce de leche, Balmaceda told an interviewer, “it seems we were the last people eating it.”
I learned how to make dulce de leche from my grandmother, Haydee Garcia. She grew up in a small town in the pampas, the rural grasslands of central Argentina, and came to live with my parents in the United States in the late 1970s, a few years before I was born. I called her Nona.
Nona would likely be denied entry to the U.S. these days, an example of the “chain migration” so derided by the current administration. She was in her 60s and a widow when she emigrated; she had few resources or marketable skills, and she never learned to speak much English. But her presence in our home made it possible for both of my parents to dedicate themselves to their careers. She was there for my brother and me when we came home from school; she packed our lunches and cooked dinner every night; and she made sure that there was always an ample supply of dulce de leche, fresh from the can.
I grew up eating dulce de leche. For breakfast, I liked to daub generous gobs of it onto Saltines. The combination of the bland, salty crackers and the caramelly, gooey dulce is still, to me, one of the all-time great flavor pairings. Sometimes, as a snack after school when I was chasing a sugar high, I would spread it on Chips Ahoy, or, if I was feeling a healthier vibe, on slices of granny smith apples.
I asked my mom if Nona had made dulce de leche for her when she was a little girl. Never, she told me; they bought it from the store in “big tubs.” But after settling in the Washington DC suburbs and finding a lamentable absence of dulce de leche, Nona must have resorted to this quick, foolproof method as a way of recreating a taste of home in a new and unfamiliar place.
There are other, fussier ways of making dulce de leche. You can simmer milk, sugar, and baking soda together, stirring it slowly until the mixture reduces, browns, and thickens; this will take you about an hour and a half, and you’ve got to keep an eye on it. You can also empty the can of condensed milk into a double boiler, and simmer it for a few hours in the oven. But why would you? These are just ordinary cooking methods, not magic! Honestly, when was the last time you were genuinely excited about something that came out of a can?
Dulce de leche redeems and elevates dull food; it makes plain things dressy. During corona time, I’ve been eating it on stale rice cakes, sprinkled with fancy salt. I’ve stirred spoonfuls into plain yogurt. It’s made that old frozen loaf of gluten-free bread appealing. Adding dulce de leche is like putting makeup on without changing out of your sweats, or turning a silk scarf into a face mask. Nona passed away nearly 20 years ago, but I am still learning from her. The lesson of dulce de leche is that you can still conjure glamour in the midst of the mundane, that Auntie Mame feeling of feasting at life’s banquet, even when you’re stuck in your own kitchen at home.