This week I attempted to make homemade Dulce de Leche.
It took me a week of slaving over a hot stove to discover that, in actual fact, I couldn’t do what Felicity Cloake does at the Guardian each week in her How to make the perfect… series. It turns out that replicating the smooth unctuousness of shop-bought Dulce de Leche is not so easy to achieve when you’re staying in a city centre Air BnB flat (with basic kitchen) in Buenos Aires, so instead I settled for the slightly less velvety (but no less addictive) homemade version, which I’m calling Dave de Leche. Here’s what I learned about Dulce de Leche in a week.
In theory, the delicious (and totally ubiquitous in Latin America) caramel spread Dulce de Leche only has 2 ingredients, milk and sugar, but all the recipes I read suggested that homemade Dulce de Leche required the addition of Bicarbonate of Soda (Baking Soda) and Vanilla to the mix as well. These 4 ingredients were to become my firm friends over the next 7 days.
I could only find granulated sugar, so that’s what I worked with, and the milk was the standard supermarket full fat stuff, though I couldn’t find any super-creamy milk.
Homemade Dulce de Leche: the recipe
All the homemade Dulce de Leche recipes I read convinced me that how much sugar and vanilla you put in is entirely down to taste, and the bicarbonate of soda is just to achieve a good colour. The three recipes I found most helpful were Alton Brown, Laylita (who rightly points out that DDL has many different names and guises in different Latin American countries) and Martha Stewart. There are many other recipes out there, including more WYSIWYG ones which use the popular (but, I’m told, inferior) boiling-a-condensed-milk-can method. I dismissed the boil-in-a-can style DDL because I wanted to go for something a little more authentic, which generally involves those four ingredients plus a pan, a wooden spoon, and lots of time.
Batch 1: fudge and sweet
Having read so many online recipes suggesting constant stirring in the final stages of cooking, I approached this first Dulce de Leche batch with extreme caution, keeping my milk/sugar/bicarb/vanilla mix on an extremely low ebb for around 3 hours, stirring it almost constantly as the milky mixture first changed colour and gradually moved towards the desired consistency. As soon as my mixture arrived at the gloopy, peanut-butter thick consistency I took it off the heat and poured it off to cool.
The result of Batch 1 was an almost solid, tooth-ticklingly sweet melt-in-the-mouth fudge. Delicious, but not what I had in mind. I’d clearly overcooked my DDL and not allowed for how much it would thicken on cooling. Back to the drawing board…
Batch 2: super grainy
Reading a few online forums, I deduced that I’d both overcooked and added too much sugar to my mix, so for my second batch I kept the low heat, went with less sugar (about half as much sugar as milk) and removed my mixture when it reached a thick, plopping off the spoon consistency, which was much thinner than batch 1.
The result of Batch 2 was closer to the correct consistency, but it tasted grainy, instead of smooth and buttery, and stuck to the teeth a little. Hmm…
Batch 3: smooth but insipid
Further scouring of online forums revealed that my near-constant stirring of the Dulce de Leche mixture may have caused the gritty texture. It was either that, or the fact that my low temperature approach probably hadn’t enabled the mixture to reach the temperature at which the sugar would dissolve and melt into the milk. So for batch 3 I whacked up the temperature, calmed down on the stirring (now stirring only occasionally to make sure the bottom didn’t burn, until the last 20 minutes when it felt necessary to return to constant stirring). I also diminished my sugar amount once again, in an attempt to avoid more tooth-sticking, taking it down to about 1 part sugar/4 parts milk.
For batch 3 I observed the mixture bubble up, leaving a thick foam on top for around 30 minutes. When the foam cleared and evaporated, I was left with a smooth shiny liquid which I kept on a light simmer until it reached the desired consistency.
The result of batch 3 was something smooth but lighter and more insipid. So my consistency was now nearly right, I just needed a deeper, more sugary/buttery flavour.
Batch 4: The Darkness
For this next batch I upped the sugar content to 1-and-a-half sugar/4 parts milk but brought in 2 secret weapons: a little dark brown sugar and cream. My theory here, though completely unsupported by the Internet gurus, was that I could fatten the milk up a bit with some cream, and beef up the sugary flavour with the darker sugar.
The results of batch 4 were relatively unspectacular: I had the right consistency again, but my DDL was a dark, molasses-like colour and tasted far too much like burnt-sugar. So sugar and cream were no-go.
Batches 5 and 6: Dave de Leche
For my final 2 batches I kept the sugar levels (and everything else in my process) the same but went back to regular granulated sugar. I was, by now, nailing the thickness and sweetness but couldn’t seem to replicate the buttery, smooth texture of the shop bought Dulce de Leche. This, then, was Dave de Leche, the more rustic cousin of an Argentine classic confection.
Conclusions: time well spent
With more time, better pans and more exotic ingredients (I’m convinced glucose or corn syrup would help reduce the grittiness and better milk would also help) you could probably get a lot closer to the real thing, but when homemade Dulce de Leche week was over, I admited defeat on one front (getting the actually recipe right) whilst basking in the glory of having achieved one of my more bizarre fantasies: spending an entire week focused on developing, improving and enjoying a food recipe. Cooking for the love of cooking is a real luxury. And for me, thanks to Dave de Leche, it never tasted so sweet.